July 12, 1966
“Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinks
#1 on the Record Retailer Singles Chart (UK), July 7-20, 1966
In 1966, it looked like the Kinks — one of the most promising British rock bands of the era — might be over. Frontman and chief songwriter Ray Davies had suffered a nervous breakdown, and was spending his days at home with his wife and newborn daughter. “I had achieved everything I had set out to do creatively and I was 22 years old,” he later wrote.
The typically prolific writer had developed an antipathy toward most music, claiming to Rolling Stone in 1969 that he only listened to Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, Glenn Miller, and Bach during this period. Yet Davies felt that he still had at least one more hit within him, one that would let the Kinks go out on a high note.
What broke Davies from his writer’s block was a simple descending riff he picked out one day on the upright piano in his living room. To construct a song around the riff, Davies reached back to a pair of tracks he had written the year before, “A Well Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” These songs had pointed to a new direction for the band, away from the hard rockers like “You Really Got Me” and the R&B covers that the Kinks had built their career on.
Instead, these songs recalled a wholly British style of music that had flourished decades before rock ‘n’ roll had crossed the Atlantic. This new style of the Kinks was almost fetishistic in its Britishness, with plonking piano and theatrical vocals pulled from the music hall tradition, Davies’ exaggerated English accents (as opposed to most of his compatriots’ American impressions or neutral mid-Atlanticisms), and a keen taste for satire.
“A Well Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower” had skewered the smug hypocrisy of the upper class and superficial trendsetters, respectively, but the subject of “Sunny Afternoon” hit a little closer to home. Davies’ musical success had elevated him to one of the highest tax brackets, in which the vast majority of his income was paid out to the British government.
The Beatles’ “Taxman,” released the same year, addressed this subject from a bitter point of view, attacking what George Harrison perceived as governmental selfishness. Davies, however, took a more self-aware tack in “Sunny Afternoon,” instead mocking the absurdity of the extremely wealthy bemoaning their “sacrifices”: “And I can’t sail my yacht / He’s taken everything I’ve got / All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon.”
Davies realized he had the potential #1 hit he needed on his hands. Despite the fact that he had intended the protagonist of “Sunny Afternoon” to be non-sympathetic, Davies wisely wrote the song so that it could be interpreted not only as a satire on the very rich, but also as a paean to the universal pleasure of “lazing on a sunny afternoon in the summertime.” The midtempo melody is bright and breezy, with only that plodding descending piano riff and a gently wheezing melodica (both played by wunderkind keyboardist Nicky Hopkins) adding a dark, wary undercurrent.
Davies’ speculation was correct: “Sunny Afternoon” returned the Kinks to the top of the UK singles chart for two weeks, for the first time since “Tired of Waiting for You” nearly 18 months earlier. It also climbed to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it one of the group’s biggest American hits, and their last appearance in the US Top 40 until “Lola” in 1970.
The success of “Sunny Afternoon” — especially the fact that it knocked the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” off the top of the UK charts, which Davies considered “one of the joys of my life” — revitalized the Kinks frontman, snapping him out of his funk and inspiring him to focus on the sort of satirical, very English slices of life that would become synonymous with the band’s golden years.
When the Kinks’ next LP, Face to Face, was released that autumn, it was not only the best album the band had released yet, but also the most cohesive, and the most singular. It was the first in a string of classic Kinks albums including Something Else by The Kinks (1967), The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968), and Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969) that found the band honing and exploring their distinctive sound. While the Kinks had first soared to stardom on the back of the British Invasion, the sound typified by “Sunny Afternoon” proved, to paraphrase its B-side, that they weren’t like everybody else.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.