"You Really Got Me"

Desperate for a hit in 1964, an obscure band named the Kinks slashed up a cheap guitar amp with a razor blade. The rest was history.

By Charlotte Robinson
Published July 23, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

The Kinks solidified their status as rock 'n' roll legends -- on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean -- through a series of excellent albums released between 1966 and 1970: "The Kink Kontroversy," "Face to Face," "Something Else," "Village Green Preservation Society," "Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire" and "Lola vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round." The albums were marked by musical inventiveness and the singular vision of songwriter Ray Davies, whose lyrics largely celebrated and lamented the passing of England's glory days.

In the United States, however, where the Kinks were banned from touring for unspecified reason, those albums were largely ignored. The group remained best known for its first hit, which would seem far more unjust if the hit hadn't been so unforgettable. To this day, in most people's minds, "You Really Got Me" remains the Kinks' signature song.

When the Kinks released "You Really Got Me" in their native England on August 4, 1964, it was a classic make-or-break moment. After two failed singles ("Long Tall Sally" only reached No. 42, although it was supported by an appearance on the hit-making TV show "Ready Steady Go," and "You Still Want Me" fared even worse) the white R&B-influenced group from the North London suburb of Muswell Hill was about to be dropped from its recording contract with Pye if its members didn't prove their commercial potential with a hit.

As a group of unknowns, the Kinks had been given no say in the selection of songs or producer at their first proper recording session in January 1964. "You Really Got Me" was already in their repertoire, and the group had even recorded a demo version of it. Their advisors found it "too bluesy" and "not pop enough" to be a hit. Instead, the band had recorded "Long Tall Sally," "You Do Something," "You Still Want Me" and "I Took My Baby Home."

At that point, the Kinks consisted of Ray Davies, his brother Dave Davies and bass player Pete Quaife. They didn't have a name or a drummer (session man Bobby Graham was enlisted to hit the skins), and they had to pay their own recording costs. Producer Shel Talmy, who was also at the helm for the Who's early recordings, fancied himself another Phil Spector (according to Dave Davies), and gave the Kinks' recordings a clean sound far removed from that of their live shows. Ray Davies was determined that would change when the group entered the studio in the early summer of 1964 for what might well have been their final attempt at making a hit record. This time, they had convinced Pye to let them record "You Really Got Me."

Ray Davies had composed "You Really Got Me" in the front room of his parents' house in Fortis Green, with help from his brother. According to Dave Davies, Ray first played him the riff on a piano. Dave tried it on the guitar, then Ray shifted the tone a couple of times, and within a day or two, Ray had written the lyrics. He wanted the song to be the kind of showstopper that would make audiences dance and go wild, and set out to make it repetitive, "like an African tribal chant."

Initially, the song began with the words "Yeah, you really got me now," but that was changed in the studio on the advice of Hal Carter, an impresario who had previously been hired to hone the group's image. Although Carter had been recently dismissed from his position with the Kinks, he did them one last favor by suggesting that Ray Davies add a new first word to the song to make it more personal and direct. Davies settled on replacing "Yeah" with "Girl," and recording commenced.

Once again, Shel Talmy's production style clashed with the band's desire to make a recording that sounded like a live performance. Neither Dave nor Ray Davies thought much of the first attempt at recording "You Really Got Me," and even Dave's girlfriend at the time commented that it didn't make her want to drop her knickers -- exactly what any good rock 'n' roll record should do. Ray started to panic. As he saw it, after two flops, "You Really Got Me" was the band's last chance, and the recording had to be just right. Besides, he might not have another hit song in him, so he couldn't waste this one.

Ray quickly set about convincing the band's managers that a rerecording was necessary, a request that was initially dismissed. After a good deal of groveling, however, manager Larry Page thought he had found a solution. Kassner Music, the Kinks' publishing company, had not yet signed over its mechanical reproduction rights to the Pye label. That meant that the group could refuse to grant mechanical rights until the song was rerecorded, and if Pye went ahead with its planned release date, it could face legal action. The label was furious about the threat, but it worked. The Kinks were granted permission to rerecord the song.

The band's managers had to loan them the money for the second recording session, about 200 pounds (perhaps $1,500 in today's money), as Dave Davies recalls in his autobiography, "Kink." The recording was done at London's IBC Studios in July 1964, once again with Talmy producing and Bobby Graham on drums. (By this point the Kinks had found a permanent drummer in Mick Avory, but Talmy insisted on Graham and relegated Avory to tambourine.) Arthur Greenslade joined the lineup on piano. Conditions were nerve-racking. There were to be no overdubs, as that would result in lowered sound quality, and the group had just three hours to get the recording right.

When the first take was over, Ray Davies still wasn't satisfied. Talmy reluctantly let him have a second try, but it was obvious that the producer, engineer and drummer were growing impatient. Davies felt as though he was being treated like a spoiled child being indulged by the adults. After all, he was an unproven songwriter with no hit records to his credit, so why should he receive any favors?

As Ray Davies recalls in his own autobiography, "X-Ray," "When Dave played the opening chords, Bobby Graham forgot the complicated introduction he had planned and just thumped one beat on the snare drum with as much power as he could muster, as if to say, 'OK, wimp, take that!'" The aggression resulted in just the primitive sound that was needed. Greenslade's repetitive piano riff took on a similarly nasty tone.

When it was time for the guitar solo, Ray yelled encouragement at Dave "and spoiled his concentration momentarily. He looked over at me with a dazed expression, as if he had done something wrong." Instead of blowing the solo, though, "His face broke into that arrogant sideways smile that I had learned to love and hate over the years. The little runt hadn't even heard me shout."

The blistering guitar sound on "You Really Got Me" remains the most intriguing element of the song. The unique sound was achieved with an inexpensive eight- or 10-watt amp called an Elpico, which Dave Davies bought at a radio shop for about six pounds. In "Kink," the guitarist recalls his first, nearly fatal experiment with the amp: After hooking his guitar into the Elpico, he plugged the Elpico into a 60-watt Linear amp, plugged that into a radiogram, then plugged that into a Vox AC 30. As soon as he turned on the main power, a surge of electricity sent Davies flying across the room. Luckily for rock 'n' roll fans, he tried again.

The next time, he again plugged his guitar into the Elpico, and then plugged the Elpico's output leads into the AC 30's inputs. The last step used to achieve just the right fuzzed-out sound is up for debate. Dave Davies claims he cut the speaker cone of the Elpico with a razor blade so the fabric contributed to the overall sound as it vibrated. As Ray Davies recalls it, his brother didn't just slit the amp, but stuck knitting needles into it, dubbing the contraption "the fart box." According to Ray Davies in "X-Ray," at an early gig, he, Dave and Pete Quaife all plugged into the amp, which was not loud enough for three guitars. The manager of the club pulled them offstage amid boos from the crowd, "but the green amp, attached by the umbilical cord of our guitars, continued to perform."

Once the second take of "You Really Got Me" was over, Ray Davies knew that he had a winner. Now it was time to record his vocals. Ray thought about how poor his voice had sounded on the first recording and was determined to sing clearly. He imagined himself writing the song in his parents' front room, where the large Davies family had enjoyed so many singalongs around the piano. Then he saw himself onstage singing to a girl in the front row. He began to sing to her, "Girl, you really got me now ..." Everything was working out at last. On the way home from the recording session, everyone bubbled with the excitement of knowing they had recorded a hit. Ray Davies "thought just how marvelous the experience had been and how lucky I was just to have got this far, to have one of my wishes come true ... I had just been born."

The recording was astounding. It was only 1964 and Dave Davies had laid down a truly original guitar sound. There was no such thing as punk yet -- and wouldn't be for more than another decade -- but there it is in that magnificent riff! The drums and piano border on proto-punk, a prediction of the foreboding vampire drone that would sound so new when the Velvet Underground revisited it two years later. Avory, likely pissed off that he was reduced to tambourine-thumper status (as Ringo Starr was on "Love Me Do"), bangs his instrument hard and loud. The voices in the background moan and drone and build suspense until Ray Davies chimes in with the raspy sneer of his "Yeah," all menace and his voice on the verge of cracking -- a real shock after the restrained monotone near-sweetness that he achieves in the verses.

In his autobiography, Dave Davies recalls the first time he heard the song on the radio: "I was momentarily stunned with excitement and awe. It was as if it was somebody else performing it and I was simply listening in admiration. All of a sudden I knew we had made it." As it turned out, Davies' prediction was right. Within the first week of its release, "You Really Got Me" entered the British Top 30, surpassing the chart positions of both the Kinks' previous singles.

Before the month was over, Ray Davies received a telegram at home announcing that the song had gone to No. 1. He spent the rest of the day driving around London to interviews and photo shoots. That night, the Kinks played a concert at Streatham Ice Rink in London, where they performed their new hit twice. After the show, the Davies' father hugged and kissed his son, telling him how proud he was. Ray Davies recalls, "Perhaps the world should have stopped turning then and there."

The Kinks were once again invited to perform on "Ready Steady Go," and appeared on the cover of NME and other important British magazines. They even enlisted the services of a publicist. By autumn, the Davies brothers were bona fide superstars, recognized wherever they went. The group even landed two prestigious gigs opening for the Beatles. At the first, in Bournemouth, Ray Davies had a somewhat nasty run-in with the notoriously acerbic John Lennon shortly before the Kinks' set.

"Well, lads, if you get stuck and run out of songs to play," Lennon said, "we'll lend you some of ours." When the Kinks took the stage, they were met with the expected shouts for the Fab Four, but the group rose to the challenge. Ray Davies shouted to his band mates to play their No. 1 hit instead of their usual set opener, "Got Love If You Want It." So bowled over was the crowd that the running order for the second date was changed so the Beatles would not have to go on immediately after the mighty Kinks.

In a rush to capitalize on the Kinks' sudden success, Pye hurried the group back into the studio to record their debut album. When recording began, session musicians started hanging around to find out what they could about the latest "it" group's hot new sound. Naturally enough, the focus of their attention was the trashy little Elpico amp. Unfortunately, though, even the presence of the unique amp couldn't save the album, "Kinks," from mediocrity. It was recorded hastily between tour dates, and Ray Davies only contributed five original songs -- and not very strong ones at that -- in addition to "You Really Got Me." All in all, "Kinks" was a collection of stale R&B covers and derivative Beat originals, and a disappointing way to start what would turn out to be a lengthy and often brilliant career.

At that point, the Kinks could have blissfully faded into one-hit-wonder status. Of course, they didn't. In October 1964, they released another hit, "All Day and All of the Night" (essentially a rewrite of "You Really Got Me"), and after another mediocre full-length effort, the following year they began releasing the string of classic albums that made their name. But what if they had never succeeded again? "You Really Got Me" would most likely still make the rounds of oldies radio, just as so many other 45 RPM treasures of the vinyl age do, and Van Halen probably would have recorded their memorable cover of it just the same.

A great rock 'n' roll song is often remembered because it does something magical: It captures a moment when all the elements are just right. From the angry single snare beat to the wails of the "fart box," the Kinks achieved and immortalized that moment on their first hit.

Charlotte Robinson

Charlotte Robinson is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago.

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