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The Kinks: where to start in their back catalogue | Music


The album to start with

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

When the Kinks’ abominable onstage behaviour caused the American Federation of Musicians to bar the group from ever returning to the US, Ray and Dave Davies had a rethink about where their music stood in relation to British culture. The brothers, born and bred in Muswell Hill, north London, had never hit it off, and touring tended to bring out the worst in them. But their masterwork, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, testified to their uncanny knack of overriding personal animosity, joining hands around a unity of creative purpose, when in a recording studio.

The 1965 American ban was undoubtedly a blow. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones led the so-called British invasion of the US, reaping the considerable financial rewards, and when Village Green Preservation Society was released in 1968, questions were raised about whether the Kinks had become parochial and out of touch. As Jimi Hendrix released Electric Ladyland and the Rolling Stones were moving from the psychedelic Their Satanic Majesties Request to the hard-driving Beggars Banquet, the opening track of the Kinks’ new one was apparently an ode to the England of Enid Blyton or John Betjeman, extolling the delights of strawberry jam, warm real ale, custard pies and Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And also virginity, a paradox given the Kinks’ well-documented sexual adventures; although, as Ray Davies subsequently made clear, this album was all about treasuring and preserving precious things that, once gone, are gone for ever.

Witty, surreal and sharply observed, the album evoked the visions of William Blake, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll – with perhaps a touch of the Goon Show – over anything to do with dreary, self-satisfied English nostalgia. The high level of musical invention tells you as much. The from-the-earth-up funk of earlier Kinks hits such as You Really Got Me is jettisoned in favour of music seemingly disembodied from everyday reality, which keeps vanishing down rabbit holes. Memory, myths, timelines smudge. Picture Book sketches a scene of old-age reminiscence over family photographs, while Do You Remember Walter? could equally be Ray, then in his mid-20s, remembering local character Walter – or projecting himself into old age.

Materialising out of the mists like Turner’s painting The Great Western Railway, Last of the Steam-Powered Trains rides over a riff borrowed from Willie Dixon, which bumps into an uplifting, up-the-scale chord sequence that reappears in the much-loved Kinks song, Days. Big Sky – dramatic, anthemic chords and Ray’s searing narration – gives a Blakean snapshot of the cosmos, while kittenish, mischievous flutes introduce Phenomenal Cat, a simple and touching reminiscence of a once adored feline. All life is here.

The three to check out next

Something Else By the Kinks (1967)

The artfully organised Something Else By the Kinks is the obvious pick of the pre-Village Green bunch. Any album that kicks off with David Watts – inspired by a post-gig party at the home of a local dignitary that ended with everyone getting naked, and Ray offering to trade Dave for the Watts mansion – and finishes with the eternal London love song Waterloo Sunset, is going to be an instant classic. But also on offer: Dave Davies’ best song, Death of a Clown, the Kurt Weill-like Harry Rag and (on the reissue) the mesmerising Autumn Almanac, for which chord sequences were snipped up and reversed to make the melodic line meet itself coming the other way.

Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1969)

This project had its roots in a television play that was dropped, but Ray’s music was too good to abandon. Released in album form in the aftermath of Village Green, Arthur shares its ambition and themes of what it meant to be British. The original play told the story of Arthur, a carpet-layer who escaped the postwar gloom by emigrating to Australia. The track, Australia, is as far as the Kinks ever went into freely evolving trippy, ecstatic instrumental improvisation. And Arthur opens with another defining Kinks hit, Victoria.

Sleepwalker (1977)

Fast forward into the 70s, and the Kinks went through a commercial lean patch when Ray’s ostentatious concept albums, Preservation Volumes 1 and 2, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace, failed to convince the fans – or even Dave Davies. Now signed to Clive Davis’s Arista label, the Kinks reverted to being an honest-to-goodness rock’n’roll band, but never lost the essence of their art. Juke Box Music is typically double-edged: a woman spends her days marooned inside the lyrics of her favourite pop songs, a disconcerting scenario transformed into something joyful. Mr Big Man is unapologetically, infectiously funky; Full Moon gets progressively darker as Ray sings about madness and isolation.

One for the heads

To the Bone (1994)

Dropped by major labels and with tensions between the brothers escalating (Ray trampled over Dave’s birthday cake during his 50th-birthday celebrations), the Kinks limped into the mid-90s, eventually crashing and burning in 1996. To the Bone, their exquisite farewell, mixed earlier live material with tracks recorded in front of an invited audience at Konk Studios in Crouch End, London. Lola, Tired of Waiting, Celluloid Heroes, Come Dancing et al were captured in fresh versions, while A Gallon of Gas was a freewheeling blues track, Dave and Ray exploring the roots of popular music as they had done 30 years earlier as teenagers, up the road in Muswell Hill. The Kinks had come full circle.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click here; for Apple Music users, click here.


Further reading

Kink: An Autobiography, by Dave Davies (1997)
Dave Davies lays bare his soul in this autobiography written during the dying days of the Kinks: his troubled relationship with Ray, his struggles with drugs and drink, but also the creative highs, all documented.

X-Ray, by Ray Davies (1994)
Ray presented his autobiography in the form of a dystopian, semi-fictional novel, as a narrator hired by The Corporation is tasked with finding, then interviewing an aged rock star.

God Save the Kinks, by Rob Jovanovic (2013)
There are many other books about the Kinks, but Jovanovic’s account is a both a page-turner and expertly researched.

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