Besides the Beatles, who were the greatest British band of the 1960s? The Rolling Stones? The Who? Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich? Actually, argues Rob Jovanovic in his God Save the Kinks: A Biography (Aurum, £8.99 paperback), it is the band led by the brothers Ray and Dave Davies who are right up there with the Fab Four in terms of song-writing, musicianship and sharp lyrical observation.
Yet, laments Jovanovic, they have always been underappreciated, the least-known and lauded of the 1960s behemoths. “In my opinion, if you were to line up the best 20 Beatles songs, the best 20 by The Kinks would more than hold their own,” he writes.
Hip young bands are more likely to cite The Kinks than The Beatles as an influence, he says. Blur are obvious inheritors of the band’s London-lads persona, but the Manchester band Oasis owe them a debt, too: ‘The Importance of Being Idle’ extols the virtues of lazing on a sunny afternoon.
Even US bands such as Pixies, The Killers and REM have tipped their baseball caps to the Davies brothers, and these days Ray Davies is seen as a sort of godfather of indie-pop, a status Paul McCartney has never reached.
Jovanovic is on a mission to restore The Kinks to the top of the rockpile, and his book is an impassioned call for the preservation of this great British pop institution.
The book’s title is not just a pun: besides echoing the Kinks’ 1968 song ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’, in which Davies intones such lines as “God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety”, it refers to a US publicity campaign in the mid-1970s that set the flagging band on the road to a spectacular career revival.
Fred and Annie Davies already had six daughters before their first son, Raymond Douglas Davies, was born, in 1944. His reign as the young prince came to an end three years later, when David Russell Gordon Davies arrived and stole his thunder.
The family lived in Muswell Hill in London, and Ray’s dad took him to Arsenal matches in Highbury and introduced him to music-hall artists such as Max Miller. Fred was a drinker, and invariably it was all back to his place every weekend for a knees-up on the piano and banjo.
These parties were a formative influence on the young Davies brothers – but the most seismic event in their young lives was the death of their older sister Rene, who suffered from heart disease. She collapsed while out dancing in the West End.
Although never close as kids, the brothers found common ground as teenagers through their growing passion for music. After some time playing covers as a duo, they bit the bullet and formed a band. At one stage a local lad named Rod Stewart was considered as a lead singer, but the task fell to Ray, who also began showing a talent for song-writing.
Success didn’t come quickly for The Kinks, however: after their first singles bombed, they had one last shot before they would be dumped by Pye Records and consigned to the scrapheap. The song was ‘You Really Got Me’, and its power-chord riff, played by Dave, was just what the band needed to break into the big time.
Since then there has been a string of classic songs, including ‘All Day and All of the Night’, ‘Where Have All the Good Times Gone’, ‘Days’, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and ‘Lola’ – and more ups and downs than a roller coaster.
Jovanovic recounts the night it all fell apart for Ray Davies – personally, physically and professionally – after an ill-starred gig at London’s White City stadium in 1973. The Kinks dropped below the radar for the rest of the 1970s, but the Davies brothers kept grafting away, relentlessly touring the US and reinventing themselves as a stadium-rock act.
While The Kinks were delivering heavy rock riffs to an eager American audience, however, the young English band The Jam were in the charts with a cover of ‘David Watts’, and The Pretenders had their first hit with one of Ray’s earliest songs, ‘Stop Your Sobbing’. The Kinks’ legacy was beginning to build up.
The Pretenders’ American singer, Chrissie Hynde, began a tempestuous relationship with Ray, which, said Ray, was “doomed for disaster from the outset”. They had one daughter, Natalie, before Hynde left him, marrying Jim Kerr from Simple Minds shortly afterwards.
The Kinks finally called it a day in the mid-1990s, but in recent years Ray Davies has been the subject of a Julien Temple documentary, ‘Imaginary Man’, curated the Meltdown Festival in 2011, picked up a few “godlike genius” and lifetime-achievement awards, and been declared a national treasure by the UK press.
It all came full circle for Davies when he performed ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, in London, watched by an estimated worldwide audience of 750 million. Even God must have noticed that.