The Kinks are my fourth favorite band of all time. You may not think that’s saying much, but for me, that’s huge! I’m talking decades of intense admiration and love for The Kinks. So, why do I feel compelled to present to you a perfect ten playlist of my own of this band in particular? It’s because most people I know can only name a handful of songs by The Kinks unless they grew up listening to Classic Rock or AOR (album-oriented rock) radio stations back in the day. While their British Invasion peers The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles (my top three favorite bands, respectively) became huge superstars across the pond here in America, The Kinks are more of an obscurity today. They had hits in the US over the years and successful tours here as well, but time made them more of a cult favorite. They never got the recognition in the States that they got in England where they have always been beloved.
Was it because their songs and albums often contained content that was specifically about growing up and living in England? Maybe it was because at the height of the ’60s when their counterparts were touring America, The Kinks were banned due to fighting onstage amongst themselves, bad management issues, and generally pissing off the musicians’ union with their behavior. They did come back to tour the States and have hits here after the ban, but the damage had been done to their career.
Who are the Kinks, then? Well, I’m so glad you asked. The Kinks had many lineups over the years, but they always included the brothers with a hate/love relationship to each other, Ray and Dave Davies. Ray was the lead singer and is respected throughout the world as one of the greatest rock songwriters of all time. Dave was the lead guitarist and a pretty loved songwriter, himself. The initial lineup featured Pete Quaife on bass and Mick Avory on drums, though over the years they would add various musicians including keyboards and a horn section at times. .
Dave Davies is often credited with inventing a distorted fuzzbox guitar sound by sticking a needle into a cheap amplifier. This was used to create their first hit, “You Really Got Me“. A lot of fans will argue about who came up with the distorted power chord sound first, The Kinks or The Who. That mystery has often been attributed to them sharing a record producer at the time, Shel Talmy.
The ten songs listed are my favorite songs by The Kinks. In my mind, they fit together as a double-sided vinyl album with five songs on each side.
“Lola” (Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, 1970)
“Lola” seems like the perfect song to start my personal Kinks album. That opening strum is so recognizable and instantly engaging. This is one of the most well-known songs of theirs. It was unique at the time due to its subject matter of sexual ambiguity. This is based on a true story about Ray fancying someone at a club and not realizing until better lighting revealed facial stubble. In 1970, this was an unusual topic for a rock song. Not only did Lola become a huge hit, but it is definitely one of their most audience-pleasing concert songs. Come on, everybody, “Lola-la-la-la-la-Lola-la-la-la-la-Lola…”
“Destroyer” (Give the People What They Want, 1981)
Eleven years later, Ray Davies not only revisited the name, Lola, but also the riff of one of The Kinks’ earliest hits, “All Day and All of the Night“. Man, does this song rock, or what? It’s a song hinting at the concept of confusion (more on that later) and the affects of amphetamines. Pleading to his doctor to help him through his paranoia and obsession, “Destroyer” has Ray singing in a character’s voice. This is a quality that Davies mastered over the years in his songwriting. Lola shows concern for the protagonist: “Ooh you look so weird. There’s really something wrong with you. One day you’re gonna self-destruct.” She’s right. As the song goes on, Ray’s tone grows more and more intense. A moment I love is the repetition of the chorus several times and instead of a fade-out, the song abruptly stops with, “And it goes like this!”
“Better Things” (Give the People What They Want, 1981)
“Better Things” is probably one of the most profoundly positive rock songs I know. It feels like a greeting card being sent to us during turbulent times to have optimism about things to come. Ray seems genuinely happy about singing his best wishes to us: “Here’s to what the future brings, I hope tomorrow you’ll find better things.” This is one of those tunes that you won’t get out of your head either. It’s so damn catchy!
I recently learned a fun fact about “Better Things”—I was listening to an episode of the Office Ladies podcast hosted by two actresses from The Office, Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey. They were discussing what songs were almost used as the theme song for the sitcom. “Better Things” was in the top three choices, but the show wound up having an instrumental instead. As far as I know, this song was never considered for the FX show, Better Things. A missed opportunity, perhaps?
“Celluloid Heroes” (Everybody’s in Showbiz, 1972)
“Everybody’s a dreamer, and everybody’s a star…” These opening lyrics ring especially true of the innumerable amount of people who move to Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming a part of the magic of movies. I, myself, can be included in this as I moved out of Michigan over two decades ago with that very ambition. I stopped pursuing that dream a long time ago, but still live driving distance to Hollywood Boulevard. I will always have a love for the silver screen that’s undeniable and being in close proximity to the entertainment industry is wish fulfillment in itself.
“Celluloid Heroes” is a melancholy ode to the movie stars of long ago who are immortalized not just on film, but in concrete stars within squares along Hollywood Boulevard. Ray sings of many legends along the street such as Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, and Bela Lugosi. The song is also a tribute to those whose fame faded away with time that may not have recognizable names anymore, “Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain and celluloid heroes never really die.”
“Starstruck” (The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, 1968)
I thought I’d close off my imaginary side one of my perfect ten by what is sort of a companion piece to “Celluloid Heroes” in my mind, at least. What’s something you may feel once you get to LA and start going out on town at night (perhaps a club on the Sunset Strip)? Well, sooner or later, you’re bound to spot some celebrities hanging out at the same places you are. You may become starstruck when that’s all new to you. Now I’ve been here a long time and that instant feeling of infatuation with those I’ve seen in movies or heard on the radio rarely happens to me anymore. With actors and directors, I hardly ever get starstruck anymore. I do see less rock stars and if I ever run into a member of The Kinks or go to a concert, I can feel that excitement of my younger years.
“Starstruck” is clearly about groupies in the earlier years of The Kinks. Ray’s lyrics in this song have both a fondness and a warning of sorts. The Kinks had many women, but their reputation with groupies is hardly the stuff of the legendary exploits of bands like Led Zeppelin. Still, I think the members of The Kinks enjoyed their fan admiration (who wouldn’t?) and didn’t mind flirting with those who were starstruck.
I will now share with you an innocent, sweet story. I saw The Kinks at Pine Knob in Michigan and blew Ray a kiss when I saw him looking at me. He puckered up and blew one right back while still in mid-song. Okay, so I’m no Pamela Des Barres or Penny Lane, for that matter, but I was still starstruck. Swoon!
“Waterloo Sunset” (Something Else by The Kinks, 1967)
“Waterloo Sunset” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in my life. I cannot think of a better way to start Side Two of my perfect ten Kinks album. The musical structure, chord progression, lead and backing vocals, and lyrics are ethereal in spirit.
Even though I can’t relate to the scene of growing up in London near the dirty old river (River Thames) in this idealized picture of innocence and contentedness, finding beauty near something that’s not necessarily visually stunning is completely relatable. The singer and the listener know that when they gaze at the “Waterloo Sunset” from there, they do see paradise. The truth is that the beauty is in front of us every day if we know where to look for it.
When I listen to “Waterloo Sunset”, I feel that true beauty within the soul of this magical song. It actually makes me feel warmth even during the chilly, chilly evening time. “As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise…”
“Catch Me Now I’m Falling” (Low Budget, 1979)
This song is a great rocker with lyrics that couldn’t be more clear. Okay, except for the Captain America line that has nothing to do with the Marvel Universe. Other than that, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” is basically a song about friends. The protagonist needs their friend to simply be there for them and pick up their mood while going through a very rough time. After all, the singer already did that for their friend in the reverse situation. How hard is it to reciprocate? According to the words, this friend is being ignored, even ghosted. We’ve all been through that. We all need help sometimes, whether we admit it or not. “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” conveys that emotion perfectly, yet is still, somehow, a feel-good song rhythmically.
“State of Confusion” (State of Confusion, 1983)
Speaking of relatable songs, I feel like “State of Confusion” could easily be a theme song for the times we’ve been living in, especially this last year-and-a-half. It’s an anthem for now even though it was written and recorded in 1983. It’s about everything going wrong at once. Living in our era of the worldwide pandemic, political upheaval, severe racial unrest, and sheer madness, how are we getting by? It’s pure confusion, that’s what it is. With the news cycle being so turbulent, “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. There’s no escape from the state of confusion I’m in.” Ray’s primal scream at the beginning of “State of Confusion” couldn’t be more perfect. Well, we’ll have ‘better things’ soon, but in the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to listen to music that you love. This is one of my favorite music videos of all time. It cheers me up!
“Victoria” (Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire), 1969)
“Victoria” is a song about Victorian England. Even though my musical tastes run British, I’m afraid knowledge of England’s history is not really my forte, to say the least. That’s okay, I have artists like The Kinks to paint pictures of what it means to be British. My only background on Queen Victoria is this song, but you know what…I love the groove and attitude so much that it fits in my perfect ten Kinks songs. Ray uses a different singing voice at the beginning, but then reverts back to the Davies sound we all know and love by the end. Once again, Ray is playing the storyteller. Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) is one of The Kinks’ first concept albums. “Victoria” is an extremely fun jam.
“No More Looking Back” (Schoolboys in Disgrace, 1975)
“No More Looking Back” is basically the finale (if you don’t count a brief reprise of “Education”) of one of The Kinks’ best concept albums, Schoolboys in DIsgrace. To me, it’s the ultimate breakup song. It owes so much to one of Davies’s favorite concepts—nostalgia. Do you still have something or somewhere that reminds you of that old love you thought was out of your head and heart, but that twinge comes back? “No More Looking Back” reminds me that it’s an okay thought or feeling to have. It’s an acceptance of being a part of your past. The passion of the lyrics and performance brings to fruition this completely relatable concept. Here’s to a song that reminds you of that time of love!
These ten songs can never get old for me and when I put them together for my perfect ten album playlist, the flow of the music really worked for me in ways that were surprising and wonderful. The Davies brothers haven’t worked together for a long time…or have they?! The rumors going around fansites and Facebook groups of The Kinks have been speculation that Ray and Dave have recorded together again (or will). There are recent pictures of the two smiling together with no signs of fist-size bruises on either of their faces. Has living in these troubled times brought back these brothers to reconcile and work together again? If not, they have already giving us many decades worth of some of the best music ever made. As long as I have these past records to listen to forever, I’m okay with ‘no more looking back’ and I wish the Davies brothers all of the ‘better things’ that life has to offer.