The Kinks - You Really Got Me
Producer: Shel Talmy - Released: 1964
It's late summer 1964, and four kids from north London shuffle into the hot basement studio in London's Portsmouth Place, a curious mixture of nervousness and arrogance. Their 22-year old leader knows that everything is on the line with this session - in the six months since being signed, they've already had two flop singles and their record company has been dropping hints about this being their last chance. What's 'more, he's already locked into a battle with the label, having refused to allow them to release the first recording of the song they're about to redo on this sweltering evening. (Uppityness unheard of in 1964 - his managers claim that the only reason the label didn't sue was that they knew that the band had no money!).
But his kid brother, distractedly blasting distorted chords out of a tiny amplifier in the corner, doesn't seem to give a shit anymore than any surly 17-year old should do. The two veteran session players brought in to add some professionalism to the proceedings glance at their watches - they've been booked for a three-hour session and don't want to waste any more time than they have to. Finally, the engineer is ready. Throats clear, the producer signals from the cramped control room, and the two attitude-drenched chords shatter the air. The Kinks are unleashing "You Really Got Me" on an unsuspecting world, and they are about to make rock and roll history.
"The magic was in the air," recalls producer Shel Talmy. "When I first heard it, I said shit, it doesn't matter what you do with this, it's a number one song. It could have been done in waltz time and it would have been a hit." But singer- songwriter Ray Davies and brother Dave weren't at all happy with the initial recording. "There was echo on everything and my voice sounded distorted," wrote Ray in his autobiography X-Ray. "At the time, Dave had a girlfriend... who put my feelings into words when she said that it didn't make her want to drop her knickers." Talmy, however, defends the original. "It was a slower and much blusier version, but it was an extremely good recording - it too would have gotten to number one."
But a good part of the magic was in the song's production. It was in the snarling distorted guitar that kick-started three generations of rock guitarists into punk, heavy metal, and grunge (a sound achieved in those pre-pedal days not only by Dave Davies' slashing of his speaker cone with a razor blade but also, Talmy remembers, by kicking his amplifier at every opportunity). It was in Davies' raw, unfettered solo (no, it wasn't played by Jimmy Page) that perfectly encapsulated teenage angst in eight raging bars. It was in the relentless backbeat laid down by session drummer Bobby Graham (newly recruited drummer Mick Avory was dispatched to play tambourine, just as Ringo was on his first recording with the Beatles) and it was in insistent barrelhouse piano by sessionist Arthur Greenslade. It was in the sneering backing vocal ("oh yeah...") by Dave, bassist Pete Quaife and assorted girlfriends and hangers-on, and it was in Ray's unforgettable lead vocal, just barely restrained during the verses and sheer adrenaline rush during the choruses.
"I made a conscious effort to make my voice sound pure and I sang the words as clearly as the music would allow," he recalls. "Those thumping chords started playing down my headphones and in the first row of my imaginary audience I saw a girl. Every emotion I had was focused on that one image and nobody could deny me this moment...As the song moved into the first key shift it was as though I felt completely alive for the first time. I wanted the song to go on forever." In many ways, it did. To this very day, bands labor mightily after the murky, basement-like sound of "You Really Got Me" (which did indeed shoot straight to number one), but nobody's quite succeeded the way those four kids from north London did on that hot summer night.
Howard Massey, Musician Magazine, July 1997