Saturday, November 30, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: God Save the Kinks



It's a generally accepted truth that the greatest British bands to come out of the 1960s were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks. However, while The Beatles are considered the greatest band of all time and The Who and the Stones are always listed as some of the top bands of all time, the Kinks have always been the red-headed stepchild of the bunch.  What I mean by this is in the sense that, even though they are generally acknowledged to have created some of the best singles and albums of the 1960s and are mentioned by numerous bands from the 1980s, 90s, and today as a major influence, they are often left out of the conversation when it comes to the most influential and legendary of all 1960s bands.

For anyone who is unfamiliar, at the core of the Kinks' story is the love/hate relationship between the only two constants throughout the band's entire career, the Davies brothers. Ray Davies (songwriting/lead vocals/rhythm guitar) is rightly hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and I personally place him on my "Mt. Rushmore" of great songwriters, alongside John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Pete Townshend. His younger brother Dave (lead guitar/vocals/occasional songwriting) was an integral part of the equation for the Kinks, both musically and in terms of his attitude and approach to the band, both onstage and off. However, while Ray and Dave, as the youngest two children (and only sons) of the eight children their parents had, shared an obvious closeness and bond as brothers, there was also a huge gulf between them in terms of personality and approach to music, life, and interactions with others (for instance, Ray was incredibly introverted and self-centered, while Dave was very social and generous); this is the overwhelming crux of the Kinks' story as told in this new biography of the band.

***Special thanks to Amanda at Aurum Press for sending me a review copy of this book!***

God Save the Kinks is a brand new biography on The Kinks, written by Rob Jovanovic. It purports to be the definitive biography and has as its selling points new interviews that the author has conducted with many people in and around the band throughout their history, including founding member Mick Avory, longtime members John Gosling and John Dalton, the brother of founding bass player Pete Quaife, David Quaife, as well as the band's managers, backing singers, press agents, tour managers, studio engineers, and so on. The book is structured traditionally and each chapter covers a specific year/mini-era of the band's career in chronological order. The entire book is bookended with a synopsis of the drama around Ray Davies' performance during the 2012 London Summer Olympic games, where he had finally come full circle as a British national treasure. It's written in a clear and concise manner and is easy to read, and at quite a rapid clip at that.


Starting with the birth of the Davies brothers and their childhood, the author details the formation of the band through its many early incarnations and names before the classic founding Kinks line-up of Ray and Dave, Pete Quaife, and Mick Avory was settled upon in 1964. Jovanovic does a nice job throughout the book showing his enthusiasm for the band while still maintaining some balance when it comes to detailing not only their successes, but also their failures and more unsavory behaviors. As a fellow Kinks fanatic myself, it made the book more enjoyable to read knowing that the author himself understood just what this band was all about beyond the just the great music.

While reading this book, what struck me most was just how much struggle the band endured almost from the beginning of their entire career; it was almost ridiculous how hard everything came for them!  The author does a nice job discussing all of the various travails, such as the band nearly getting dropped from their first record company (Pye) until their third single, the seminal "You Really Got Me," was finally the first hit they had been banking on. He also discusses their troubled early tours, including their disastrous 1965 US tour, which for some inexplicable reason that is still not understood to this day, resulted in the Kinks being banned from live performances in America until late 1969. This career-crippling ban had the effect of spurring Ray Davies to write the best albums and songs of his career and encompassed the Kinks' run of near-flawless albums, beginning with 1966's "Face to Face" and ending with 1972's "Everybody's In Showbiz."  Once the US ban was lifted, the band literally started from the bottom of the ladder again and began the long, difficult process of touring in the USA throughout the 1970s until they finally achieved massive critical and commercial success in America throughout the late 1970s and into the mid-1980s. Conversely, from the early 1970s onward, they were for all intents and purposes completely ignored in the UK beyond their hardcore fans. Jovanovic does a great job, in my opinion, really bringing this dichotomy into focus, as it was something I had some idea about, but not nearly to the extent that it evidently was true.

While there were no bombshell revelations in this book, there were a lot of smaller ones that were new to me. For instance, when Ray Davies was unsure of his singing and wanted the band to have a lead singer, a young Rod Stewart filled that role for a short time pre-1964, including playing a gig with them!  Beyond that, the author does a very nice job tying all the various bits of Kinks lore and legend into a more cohesive narrative, letting each piece of information make sense in its proper context as it fits into their history. I will say that one huge thing that I did realize when reading this book that I'd never realized before is just how troubled and difficult Ray Davies was/is. While he's long been one of my favorite songwriters, I had never known the extent of just how tortured he was, both emotionally and musically. I'd read of his eccentricities and the various clashes he'd had with his brother and other bandmates, but until I read this book, I hadn't realized just how miserable he could really be. While this obviously led to some great music, and it can't be denied that the underlying tension and simmering emotion between the Davies brothers and the rest of the band are responsible for much of the unique magic of the Kinks' music, it's also thrown into much clearer relief after reading this book how this resulted in ultimately tearing the band apart, bit by bit, as early as 1969. After reading through the entire book, you realize that it's even more remarkable that the band lasted as long as they did, from 1964 until 1996! Finally, reading about the rift between the two brothers and where it stands in the present day is actually quite saddening.  Since the mid-to-late 1990s, the only thing that has brought them together are their various health scares, and apart from corresponding via email, they currently have little to no contact with each other.

As a final aside, it was interesting for me, as a massive Beatles fan (obviously), just how much impact they had on nearly EVERYTHING in the 1960s, including their contemporaries. This goes beyond the Kinks opening for the Beatles in 1964 and John Lennon becoming a devoted Kinks fan; nearly everything in the music business during that decade was either measured against the Beatles, modeled on them, or designed to emulate or one-up them. It was a fascinating thread that ran throughout the portion of the book that covered the 1960s, and to read about how Ray was baited into saying something unflattering about John on the very day of his murder in 1980 (before he'd seen it reported in the UK press) was quite upsetting, especially reading after about how upset Ray was upon finally hearing the news.

Perhaps a minor criticism I have of the book, beyond a few scattered typos here and there (and one GLARING error that claims the Beatles never toured Australia while the Kinks did, which is wrong...the Beatles toured there in 1964 a full year before the Kinks did!), is that it doesn't dig down below the surface quite as much as I would've liked as a massive fan of the band. While the author does a nice job augmenting the narrative with very informative and effective interviews with many of the main players, I would've liked him to have gotten into even more detail when it came to the music and the intra-band issues. At just shy of 300 pages (not counting the footnotes, index, discography, and bibliography, which bring the total page count up to around 330 pages), the book seems a bit short; 300 pages doesn't seem like enough to chronicle the entire 32-year career of one of the greatest bands of all time. Still, it doesn't take away from the overall enjoyment of the book, and I can safely say that, as it stands right now, this is *the* definitive biography of The Kinks, at least of all of the books on them that I've read...and that includes the memoirs of both Ray and Dave Davies!

MY RATING: 8/10 

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