How The Kinks’ Dave Davies accidentally invented heavy metal

The retrospective sound of the 1960s is one eclipsed by the might of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Early in the decade, the sound of salience was Paul McCartney and John Lennon harmonising a love-drunk smash hit to a chorus of screaming fans; while later in the decade, one might ponder the psychedelic oddity of Sgt. Pepper or the dark blues rock of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Beyond these common reference points, however, the British Invasion was home to swathes of overlooked yet crucially innovative musicians. One of whom is Dave Davies of The Kinks.

Granted, The Beatles have been cited by practically every prominent rock musician of the latter 20th century, from Ozzy Osbourne to Bruce Springsteen, but some of their peers had more covert paths of influence.

While one wouldn’t consider The Kinks a particularly psychedelic or heavy rock-leaning group, their influence on both fields was palpable in the musical aroma of the late 1960s. Over the years, musicologists have sought the splendid source of metal, with songs like The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’, The Beatles’ track ‘Helter Skelter’, and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ singled out for their powerful, chugging guitar runs.

Another song found in such conversations is The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’. What sets this track apart from the aforementioned hits is that ‘You Really Got Me’ was released in 1964, while the above songs were a product of 1967, ’68 and ’69, respectively.

So, having located the probable source of all things heavy in rock music, what is it about ‘You Really Got Me’ that made it so unique and influential?

When Dave’s older brother and Kinks frontman Ray Davies wrote ‘You Really Got Me’ early in 1964, his intended sound was a far cry from the eventual single recording. The main riff was intended initially as a saxophone line as part of a lower-tempo jazz-blues composition. But the song became more energetic and edgier when Dave tried playing the saxophone riff on his guitar with erratic power chords.

After seeing something special in this new direction, the band recorded an early version of the track in June 1964, but it still hadn’t found its eventual heavy-metal-inspiring sound. That sound would come following a serendipitous moment of aggression from a 17-year-old Dave Davies.

“My childhood sweetheart Sue got pregnant, and we wanted to get married,” Dave told the Guardian in 2013. “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,” he continued. “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. 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.”

The band’s producer Shel Tamy subsequently took Dave’s discovery to the studio with his sonic expertise to further amplify the distorted sound to create the finished product. “While working as a studio engineer in LA, I’d figured out various techniques to make stuff sound even more powerful,” Tamy 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.”

Dave’s damaged little green Elpico is now widely cited as the birthplace of distortion in guitar amplification. Combined with the choppy power chords of ‘You Really Got Me’, this defective speaker cone really got people going.

Released on August 4th, 1964, The Kinks’ third single, ‘You Really Got Me’ would flow into the ears of guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix. “I remember once sitting next to [Hendrix] on a plane bound for Stockholm,” Dave Davies once recalled. “After a while, we got talking a little, and he suddenly said to me: ‘Y’know, that guitar riff you did on ‘You Really Got Me’ was a real landmark.’ You can imagine how I felt. To be endorsed by Hendrix was really something. It was a great compliment.”

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