The ‘Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band of All Time’ that Wasn’t — and Why
The Kinks’s songs were often inspired by everyday scenes of British life, like this Waterloo Sunset. Photo by Steve Walker, is licensed under CC BY 2.0
By Mike Kuczkowski
In the early 1960s, a band emerged from Great Britain that would change the very face of rock ‘n’ roll.
Led by a dynamic duo, this band started its career by recording covers of songs by American R&B and blues artists. In the mid-1960s, they began penning their own tunes. Their third single was a jolt to the airwaves, producing a sound that had never been heard before and skyrocketing to the top of the charts.
Over time, the band staggeringly produced a rich catalog marked by melodic songs, evocative lyrics and a wide range of styles. They drew on diverse influences: blues, jazz, folk, country, British dance hall music and show tunes. They introduced Indian music to a Western pop music audience. In 1972, Rolling Stone’s Mike Saunders declared them “none other than the greatest rock and roll band of all time.” Decades later, bands like Oasis and Blur would cite them as a major influence.
I’m not talking about The Beatles, The Who or The Rolling Stones. I’m talking about The Kinks.
Brothers Ray and Dave Davies formed The Kinks in 1963 in the Muswell Hill part of North London, when Ray was 19 and Dave was 16 years old. In 1964, after struggling to get a record deal, they released their third song, the distorted three-chord rock single “You Really Got Me.” Dave Davies achieved the sound by slitting the fabric of his amplifier’s speakers with a razor. A legend was born.
They went on to produce a series of hit songs and strong albums over the next eight years, covering an incredibly wide swath of musical territory.
No one is making the claim that The Kinks are the greatest band in rock and roll history, not even me. But, they were very, very good – better than they are remembered today, and their case holds important lessons for marketers and brand leaders about the ways in which a great product can fail.
I rediscovered The Kinks last summer, when their back catalog from the 1960s and 1970s quietly appeared in Apple’s iTunes store without fanfare or promotion, marking the band’s 50th anniversary.
Listening to these albums was eye opening. The hits I knew were as good as I’d remembered, but there were dozens of tracks I’d never heard or barely remembered that were simply brilliant. Why was this band not a dominant part of the musical conversation? The Rolling Stones and The Who sell out stadium shows, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. The Kinks, who broke up in 1996, don’t even get an artist’s profile in the iTunes store. If they reunited, they would be a theater show at best – no arenas.
What caused The Kinks to wind up in the dust bin of rock and roll?
In his best-seller “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that social epidemics – a proxy for breakout commercial successes – are driven by a combination of factors he terms “connectors”, “mavens” and “salesmen.” His concept is that a small innovation can go “viral” and become a breakout success if it can cultivate people who are well-connected, people who curate new information, and people who are charismatic advocates for that innovation.
Surely The Kinks lacked one or more of these critical factors. Let’s look a bit more closely.
Mavens: They had well-regarded, “maven-ish” advocates, in the form of musical peers like the Who’s Pete Townsend, who declared that Ray Davies should be Britain’s poet laureate, and David Bowie, who says “I’ve never heard a Kinks song I didn’t like.” John Lennon is also said to have been a fan. Upon hearing The Kinks single “Wonderboy,” Lennon reportedly asked the DJ of a London restaurant to play the song over and over again one night. (Davies was no fan of Lennon’s, regarding Lennon as arrogant.)
Connectors: The Kinks had “connectors” in the form of critics, who largely liked the band and its music. While Saunders’ 1972 quote above, in a mixed review of The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, is a bit of hyperbole, no editor cut it out. Rock critic Robert Christgau described their 1967 song “Waterloo Sunset” as “the most beautiful song in the English language.”
Salesman: They had charismatic “salesman” in Ray Davies himself, who has all the traits one could want in a frontman—hubris, a wild imagination and great stories to tell. Davies was famously truculent with the media, arrogant and irascible at times, but that would only serve to aid the promotion of many other frontmen. Dave Davies, the guitarist and sometimes singer, was also good with a quote. When asked if the band was trying to play heavy metal in the 1980s, the younger Davies replied “It wasn’t called heavy metal when I invented it.”
What went wrong?
The Kinks had three problems that I would describe as system barriers.
Market Access: During the critical period of 1965 and 1969, when they were making their best music and bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones were feeding and feeding on a music-led culture, The Kinks lacked access to the biggest commercial market in the world, and the market that set the pace for the industry.
In 1965, after a brief American tour in which the band fought on stage and destroyed equipment, the American Federation of Musicians banned The Kinks from touring in America. The strike was not resolved for four years.
The American ban hurt. In 1967, when “Waterloo Sunset” was released, it went to #2 in Britain, but failed to chart in America. Today, Rolling Stone ranks that song #42 on its list of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time. (“You Really Got Me” is #80.)
Timing: The Kinks were often out of step with their times. While The Beatles were experimenting with psychedelica and absurdist lyrics, and hard rock and heavy metal were emerging as dominant forces, Ray Davies was writing about tea, sunsets and sunny afternoons. This focus on the details of everyday life is at the core of indie rock 25 years later, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was not popular. One example: In 1971, while The Kinks’ heavy metal descendants were celebrating excess and drug abuse, The Kinks recorded the remarkable lament “Alcohol,” a swinging, New Orleans-style dirge about a man whose life had fallen apart because of his drinking. Years later, when heavy metal was breaking through, The Kinks released the mediocre “Give the People What They Want,” an uninspired attempt at capitalizing on the popularity of the genre they helped create.
Product consistency & availability: The Kinks suffered from two basic “operations” problems. They were often rushed in and out of the studio, and the band often complained that the production quality of its singles was far short of its expectations. You can hear this, particularly in the mid-1960s albums. Kinda Kinks, the band’s second album, was rushed out of the studio in two weeks. (As Ray Davies later said, “a bit more care should have been taken with it… It had better songs on it than the first album, but it wasn’t executed in the right way. It was just far too rushed.”) In 1967, with the release of Something Else by the Kinks, the label rushed out the single “Autumn Almanac” to try to boost flagging sales. It would be the band’s last top 10 single for the next several years. The band also suffered distribution problems. With a series of bad label deals, their back catalog has often not been available. Pye Records – their mid-1960s label – kept few of The Kinks’ original masters, opting to rerecord other artists over their session tapes. When Van Halen hit it big with “You Really Got Me,” The Kinks Greatest Hits was hard to find. One of their most highly regarded albums, 1969’s Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), still isn’t available for download on iTunes or Amazon in the US.
What lessons do these issues hold for marketers?
First, it’s critical to understand the environment, and have a strategy that is right for that environment. Getting locked out of the US market at the peak of their creativity was a huge blow to The Kinks’ success. In 1970, the UK was an aging market of 55.6 million people. The US, by contrast, was a youth-oriented market of 207 million. When singles began to chart in the UK but not break through in America, it should have been a single that The Kinks’ lack of presence in America was dragging them down. Yet the ban was not resolved until after the release of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. By that time, audiences and promoters weren’t interested in The Kinks anymore. Dates were cancelled. The tour was a flop.
Second, operational excellence plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining a brand’s reputation and its commercial success. When Pye Records rushed out Kinda Kinks, I’m sure it had very good intentions of capitalizing on a strong run of hits. But when the quality of the recording did not hold up, it undermined the band’s long-term legacy. If you compare contemporary recordings by The Beatles, like Help, with Kinda Kinks, there’s simply no comparison.
Finally, marketing strategy must reflect the qualities of the underlying product. When The Kinks were producing more introspective and personal songs, the promotion of the albums remained locked in to boastful claims of the group’s greatness. Notably, a radio spot for Muswell Hillbillies included in this year’s rerelease, quotes critics positive reviews heralding it as, in the words of one reviewer “The Album of the Year.” In fact, the album was completely out of step with its times – in a good way. But this was the year of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, The Who’s Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, and The Doors’ LA Woman — big, loud albums completely at odds with the intimacy of Muswell Hillbillies. Frankly, they still don’t appear to understand this. The band’s official web site dates to 2011, it celebrates “32 years of greatness,” referring to the band’s 1964 to 1996 span. There are only three albums on the band’s YouTube channel.
It’s not like The Kinks were a complete flop. Four of their records went gold, and they had five top 10 US singles. And they left a fantastic legacy. There is a direct line between the raw three-chord rock of “You Really Got Me” and the pnk movement. “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy” sounds like the British New Wave, 10 years too soon. “Lola” was an utterly unique hit single. The distorted sounds of “All Day and All of the Night” and “I Need You” presaged the hard rock of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
One thing is clear, the factors that inhibited the success of The Kinks would not have had the same impact today. In an era when U2 can reach 500 million iTunes subscribers with the touch of a button, The Kinks would not have been shut out of America by a touring ban. I think their more narrative-driven albums would have found a larger audience. In today’s music world, I suspect strongly they would have made the charts more often, and with more staying power.
Luckily, it’s not too late. You can still listen to Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround and Muswell Hillbillies. If you do, you too will wonder why this band isn’t at the top tier of the conversation of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.