How the Kinks Changed Rock Music With One Riff on ‘You Really Got Me’
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With a pair of unsuccessful singles under their belt and the label breathing down their necks for a hit, the Kinks entered the studio in the summer of 1964 knowing they needed to make their next record count — and they pulled it off in a big way with “You Really Got Me,” which made its U.K. debut on Aug. 4, 1964.
The song was an immediate sensation, shooting up the charts and claiming the top spot for two weeks in September. While it didn’t reach quite as high in other countries, “You Really Got Me” was a huge worldwide hit, making the Top 40 in Germany, Italy and France, and breaking into the Top 10 in Ireland, Canada and the U.S., where it peaked at No. 7. By the time the single had run its course, the Kinks were famous.
It all starts with guitarist Dave Davies‘ irresistible riff, which lurches the song to life from its opening notes and provides the musical through line that makes it so immediately, wickedly memorable. It’s one of those combinations of notes that sounds like it was always there, just waiting to be uncovered, but as Davies later told the Guardian, “You Really Got Me” didn’t just fall out of the sky.
As Dave recalled it, his band co-founding sibling Ray Davies wrote the arrangement after being inspired by Jimmy Giuffre’s 1957 single “The Train and the River“: “Ray was messing around on the piano in the front room at home, inspired by this song, and came up with the two-note riff to ‘You Really Got Me,’ which I played on guitar.”
Ray later reflected, “I wanted it to be a jazz‑type tune, because that’s what I liked at the time. It’s written originally around a sax line. Dave ended up playing the sax line in fuzz guitar and it took the song a step further. … I wanted it to be a blues song, like a Leadbelly or a [Big Bill] Broonzy song. But because I was a white kid from North London, I put in certain musical shifts that made it unique to what I did.”
Of course, Dave didn’t just play it on guitar: He made it growl, running it through a wall of distortion that startled listeners at the time. “My childhood sweetheart, Sue, got pregnant, and we wanted to get married. But our parents said we were too young and they split us up. I was a rebellious, angry kid anyway, but that had a profound effect on me. I was full of rage. A little later, I was very depressed and fooling around with a razor blade. I could easily have slashed my wrists, but I had a little green amplifier, an Elpico, that was sounding crap. I thought, ‘I’ll teach it’ – and slashed the speaker cone,” Davies explained. “It changed the sound of my guitar. Then, when I wired that amp up to another, a Vox AC30, it made it a lot, lot louder. That’s how ‘You Really Got Me’ became the first hit record to use distortion, which so many bands have cited as the beginnings of punk and heavy metal.”
According to producer Shel Talmy, who’d gotten the Kinks signed to Pye Records, they wouldn’t even have had the chance to record “You Really Got Me” if not for his own contract with the label. “At this point, the question was whether Pye was going to drop the band or allow me to do it, and as things turned out I was allowed to do it. Why? Mainly because, as part of the wonderful deal that I’d made for myself, I was liable for the studio costs, which were going to be deducted from my pittance of royalties even though I didn’t own the recordings,” he later said, with a sigh. “I made it clear that somebody had to be the captain of the ship, and that, because I had brought the guys in and had a contract and a royalty deal, the captain was going to be me. That meant we would do the songs we wanted to do in the way we wanted to do them.”
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Talmy knew “You Really Got Me” was a hit in waiting, but even with that riff and Dave’s amp destruction working in its favor, the song took some time to come together. Initially, the band attempted more of a straight blues version, which ended up being slower and drenched in reverb. Talmy later maintained that version would have been a hit anyway, but it wasn’t to Ray’s liking. “After it was done, I said it was over‑produced and I didn’t want to put it out,” he explained. “[I thought] we should do it on one‑track and get the raw sound we wanted.”
The final version we all know and love is, of course, memorably raw – but it wasn’t exactly a one-track recording. “While working as a studio engineer in L.A., I’d figured out various techniques to make stuff sound even more powerful,” Talmy told the Guardian. “On ‘You Really Got Me,’ I recorded the guitar on two channels, one distorting and the other not. The combination makes the sound seem louder. We’d even kick Dave’s amp as we walked past, to make it sound rougher. I used 12 microphones to record the drums – which was unheard of then – so they’d sound like they were bouncing off the walls.”
At this stage in rock’s evolution, it was still much closer to its roots in more traditional forms of music, and as a result, performances that seemed shocking at the time can sound awfully mannered today. “You Really Got Me,” on the other hand, still sounds fresh: It cut through any semblance of pop artifice and tapped into the seething current below the surface. Moreover, more than 50 years later, it would be hard to overestimate the impact it’s had – not only on the Kinks, who benefited immeasurably from its success and used permutations of that signature riff for a handful of future songs, but on subsequent generations, who absorbed its volcanic rush and used it as fuel for countless records.
And of course, “You Really Got Me” has become a standard cover song along the way, recorded and performed by a long list of artists, and used by many young bands as power chord-fueled shorthand for brash, libido-driven rock ‘n’ roll attitude. In 1978, a young California quartet by the name of Van Halen recorded a new version of the song for their self-titled debut album, turning it into a Top 40 single all over again – and helping spark a Kinks revival in the process. “The 14-year-olds think we’re a new band,” Dave Davies said incredulously in a 1981 interview. “Ray even introduces ‘You Really Got Me’ as a song that was made famous by Van Halen. Some of the young kids don’t go back much further than that.”
But for a lot of listeners – and for the song’s composer – there’s still nothing quite like the original. “When I left the studio I felt great. It may sound conceited, but I knew it was a great record,” Ray Davies later mused. “I said I’d never write another song like it, and I haven’t.”
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