The Kinks song that allowed Ray Davies to “find his voice” again

In 1964, The Kinks flew out of the traps with an impressive flourish of singles that remain staples of the British Invasion era today. ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘All Day and All of the Night’ got hips swinging in dance halls on both sides of the Atlantic. A formula reliant on Dave Davies’ choppy, distorted riffs and Ray Davies’ seductive vocals ensured a legacy early on, but longevity required reinvention.

Fortunately, innovation was Ray Davies’ middle name. As bands like The Kinks and The Who glinted in the shadow of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, they soon realised a strong identity was paramount. For The Who, it meant pursuing tight concepts in Pete Townshend’s celebrated rock operas; for The Kinks, it meant bolstering a quintessentially English visage while satirising the upper classes.

The most famous product of this regime was 1966’s ‘Sunny Afternoon’, but similar ideas were expressed in The Village Green Preservation Society a couple of years later. As it transpires, Ray Davies is immensely proud of his British heritage and fears Americanisation.

“I hope England doesn’t change,” Ray told Melody Maker in 1966. “I’m writing a song now called “You Ain’t What You Used to Be” which expresses what I feel. I hope we don’t get swallowed up by America and Europe. I’m really proud of being British … I don’t care if a bloke votes Labour or Conservative as long as he appreciates what we’ve got here. We have so much that is great compared with other countries, and people just don’t realise it. I want to keep writing very English songs.”

Davies stuck to his word and remained markedly English throughout the Kinks’ revered oeuvre heading into the 1970s. Many of his signature creations, such as ‘Waterloo Sunset’, were set in London. Even Lola, whose name rhymes with the American company Coca-Cola, could be found in a “club down in old Soho”.

Throughout the 1970s, The Kinks remained prolific but were somewhat marginalised by shifting trends. The madding crowd would appear more interested in the likes of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, later transfixed by the punk phenomenon. In 1983, The State of Confusion threw up a bolt from the blue, ‘Come Dancing’, which proved to be a major hit in the US, reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100.

Otherwise, the band prevailed through the 1980s, maintained by a loyal fanbase against the odds of the ever-fractious relationship between Ray and Dave Davies. In 1993, The Kinks released their last-ever studio album, Phobia, before their disbandment in 1996. Ironically, it was on this album that Ray claimed to have found his “voice again” following several years of mediocrity. He reserved most of his pride for the album’s second single, ‘Only a Dream’.

“I think I kind of found my voice again on ‘Only a Dream’, which I wrote on a plane to England after I decided that the album needed to have a little more humanity,” Ray said in a 1993 interview with Pulse Magazine. “It’s odd that an artist who’s supposed to have been around still gets intimidated by certain things, but I do, and I had to really get myself prepared to do that vocal. The night before I did, I went out and got rat-arsed drunk on wine. I was still shaking when I got to the studio the next morning, and I did the vocal in one take. It’s only a pop song, but there’s a lot of emotion in it, and there’s a lot of me in it.”

Towards the end of the interview, Ray reflected on his career to date, unaware of The Kinks’ imminent demise. “Music is becoming more and more important to me the older I get,” he said. “The Kinks have got this tremendous catalogue now, but it still feels like a work-in-progress. I’ll sit back and listen to it and recognise the connections, and get the feeling that it isn’t quite finished yet. And I suppose it won’t bother me too much if my epitaph just says, ‘The guy who sang with The Kinks.”‘

Listen to The Kinks’ 1993 single ‘Only a Dream’ below.

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