“You Really Got Me” Celebrates A Very Kinky 50th Anniversary

Third time’s a charm, says the old adage. In rock ‘n’ roll, few sayings have ever been truer.

On August 4, 1964, a quartet from northern London released their third single in the UK, and a few weeks later in the US, unleashing a sound that would herald in a new age of rock music.

“You Really Got Me” was a final attempt to make it big; the Kinks’ last shot at a hit after failing to see chart success with their previous singles “Long Tall Sally” and “You Still Want Me.” The determination was so great that the band had to scrape up the money for an extra studio session to re-record the track, since they felt the first Shel Talmy version was too soft. (Funnily enough, this interview with the legendary producer doesn’t mention the do-over at all.)

Without this hit, who knows if we would ever have heard another Kinks song. The band might have faded into obscurity along with many other British R&B and pop bands that emerged in the early ‘60s, when mods and rockers ruled the UK and the British Invasion had just sent its first wave of bands over to the United States. But, more importantly, would half of the bands that made it big after 1964 have even existed without “You Really Got Me”?

It seems silly to put such importance on one song by one band, considering how much was happening in music at the time. “You Really Got Me” lasted a mere couple of weeks at #1 in the UK, and only got to #7 in the US. The Beatles often dominated the charts and plenty of other UK acts  like the Animals, the Searchers, and Herman’s Hermits, to name a few, had their own moments in the sun that year with equally memorable tunes. But “You Really Got Me” was different. It was raw. It was powerful. It was dangerous.

Consider some of the other British contenders from 1964: “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” by Manfred Mann is a lovely little song. It’s fun, it’s romantic in a silly kind of way, and, hey, you gotta love the killer maracas. The vocals aren’t the angelic sort, which give it a slight edge. It’s a great sing-along, if just for the gobbledegook lyrics. But it lacks power.

The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” is perhaps closer to that quintessential sound we label as rock music. Eric Burdon’s voice is rough, the keyboard is trippy, and the guitar is beautiful. But this is not a song you can “get down” to. As amazing as the recording is, the dirge isn’t uplifting and I would not consider it a fun song in the traditional sense.

As for the Beatles’ parade of hits in 1964 including “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “I Feel Fine” — well, you really can’t attack these songs. They’re pop gold. They’re lyrically compelling, danceable, and musically sound. But they’re still typical of the time, and lack a certain sonic risk.

Your archetypal pop/rock song in the early ‘60s was built upon a simple, yet effective, foundation. Lyrically, a song could be an ode from one lover to another, whether it be potential or current, and usually from a man to a woman. Its words would be a romantic gesture, a way of saying, “Hey, you’re cute, I like you. Please tell me you feel the same.” The song might include the suggestion of a kiss or an embrace (SCANDALOUS!). There might be a compliment to someone’s appearance or the clothes (s)he wears. Very saccharine stuff. Largely, the songs kept to generic backbeats and basic strumming and God forbid you actually noticed the bass line! Guitar picking wasn’t terribly elaborate, but was just unique enough to make a song catchy. Not to say that any of that is bad; those songs were and still are great music. But they’re a reflection on the formula of the time.

When this grungy, crunchy barnstormer called “You Really Got Me” erupted, it was, for lack of a better term, a game-changer. Dave Davies’ guitar is unrefined, dirty, and strong. There’s a crude power behind it, unsophisticated and rude. The song’s opening riff is perhaps one of the most recognizable in rock music for good reason. Today, that buzzy guitar might seem tame compared to what succeeded it later that decade and beyond, but, at the time, it was completely different from any other single.

From a lyrical standpoint, the song isn’t very far off from the song template I described earlier. In fact, when one thinks of the breadth of Ray Davies’ songwriting repertoire throughout his 50-year career, it’s almost laughable that he could write a song so straightforward and repetitive. But when compared to about every other song from that year, the lyrics are downright filthy. It’s a young man not-so-subtly admitting that he “can’t sleep at night” because he’s constantly thinking about a girl who’s “really got” him. Let’s not kid ourselves and assume he’s hung up on how pretty her hair looks, and let’s not pretend that his sleepless nights don’t involve a little self-abuse.

It’s not a song about wooing a girl, it’s a song about wanting to get lucky. (Take that, Daft Punk.) It’s an ode to hormones and lust and what every parent didn’t want to think their teenage sons and daughters were up to after school. “You Really Got Me” is animalistic, lewd, and extremely working class. While sweeter songs earlier in the decade coded their desires in hand-holding and student dances, the Kinks shoved it right in the listener’s ears. The suggestiveness of the song and its hardly-subtle sexual undertones were almost revolutionary.

Yet, in the larger scheme of things, the Kinks never fully got the credit for opening the doors to hard rock. Yes, many a music scholar will point to it as a basis for hard rock, heavy metal, garage rock, punk rock, and any other random sub-genre you can think of. And of course it launched a lengthy discography for the band. But even today, the artists who came later whose sounds were harder, louder, and more direct, seem to get more credit for revolutionizing the gritty side of rock than Ray and Dave Davies.

(Image via MusicHeritageUK.org.)

Watch any television special about the British Invasion and the Kinks, although mentioned, aren’t given much airtime; that’s reserved for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who, the latter of which don’t even make sense, considering they were not part of the first wave of the Invasion and didn’t even come to America until 1967. (That being said, the Kinks only toured the US briefly in 1965 before being banned for four years; if that doesn’t give them a million badass points, I don’t know what does.)

Even today, old, false rumors are resurfacing about the well-respected riff, as if stripping Dave Davies of his place in rock history and giving it to a more acclaimed hard rock guitarist somehow grants the song more credibility and value. I don’t see anyone attacking any other Invasion band over the origins of their top hits (some of which were extremely inorganic, if you catch my drift), so why are the Kinks questioned over their legitimacy?

Of course, even within the band there is still controversy over the creation of that distinctly distorted guitar sound which made “You Really Got Me” and the follow-up single “All Day and All of the Night” so popular; was it Dave slashing the cone of his little green amp with a razor blade or Ray stabbing the same amp with their mother’s knitting needles? I personally believe the former claim to be likely, but there are still those who would believe the latter. And as long as the brothers continue to bicker on such issues, according to what is frequently thrown out in the media, the controversy will never end. Even mentioning it here is another stir to the pot.

Rocky reputation aside, I ask that today of all days we take the time to listen to “You Really Got Me” and appreciate this spectacular rock milestone. Let’s mull over its influence on the music industry and wonder where rock music would be if this song hadn’t been released. Yes, I’m sure someone would have eventually made their own hard rocker and thus would have gotten the credit for the innovation, but the point is that the Kinks did it 50 years ago.

This year, the media has largely reflected on the half-century anniversary of the Beatles coming to America and what that means for mid-century music and everything since; I say we offer some more spotlight to other contenders of the age, such as the Kinks, and not let their accomplishments be overshadowed.

I’m declaring that today be Kinks Day. Go forth and let the band really “get you.”

Even Kinkier!

  • Dave Davies is currently working on a new album following his release of I Will Be Me last year, and has a US tour planned this autumn. (Stay tuned to REBEAT for a review!)
  • Ray Davies has a few shows scheduled next month in the UK and recently received an honorary doctorate from London Metropolitan University.
  • The Kast Off Kinks, featuring drummer Mick Avory, bassist John Dalton, and other former band members frequently have gigs in the UK including a 50th Anniversary show on August 16.

(Cover photo via REX/UK Telegraph.)

About Jen Cunningham 46 Articles
Jen Cunningham is an editor in the puzzle-publishing industry, an amateur artist, and Anglophile hailing from New York. She was raised on good ol' British rock and the smell of vinyl records. When she's not working, she enjoys going to concerts, playing tabletop games, and making unfortunate puns.
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  • ThePrisoner

    God Save the Kinks!

  • Pete Presley

    What a great piece – that makes so much sense. God indeed save the Kinks