Imagine being a British teenager in the summer of 1964. “You Really Got Me” comes on Radio Caroline one night and BAM!…your world changes….
Back in 1964 the BBC played pop music only sporadically, even then they only dipped their toes in the water at the more genteel…and dare I say whiter…end of the market.
1964’s biggest-selling acts in the UK included Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison and Cilla Black…great artists all, but they were unlikely to get angry letters written to the BBC’s Director-General or awkward questions asked in Parliament.
No wonder young people listened to what was called pirate radio at the time…so called because those buccaneering pop music radio stations broadcast from boats moored just outside UK territorial waters to get round UK laws which only licensed a small number of approved broadcasters.
Radio Caroline and Radio London were popular, as was Radio Luxembourg (not technically a pirate station as it was based in a physical building in Luxembourg which, by complete coincidence I’m sure, just happened to have an astonishingly powerful transmitter, able to reach most of the UK…).
Pirate radio was all about pop music, all the time. And the pirate stations could play pretty much what they liked as they were beholden to no-one.
Apart from their advertisers…yes, apart from the excitement of pop music all the time, pirate radio was also commercial radio with regular ad slots, just like radio stations in impossibly-glamorous America, the home of rock and roll.
Gradually, the UK relaxed its broadcasting laws and, firstly, gave the BBC its own pop music station (Radio One) before sanctioning commercial radio, firstly in London with LBC and Capital Radio, then gradually all over the country.
But all that was in the future. Back in 1964 teenagers got their pop music fix courtesy of floating radio stations moored just beyond the reach of Britain’s broadcasting laws.
As luck would have it, Radio Caroline had fired up its transmitter just a couple of months before “You Really Got Me” was released and I like to imagine a DJ late at night on Radio Caroline dropping the needle on this new record from an unknown band called The Kinks and sending a sound through thousands of transistor radios up and down the country, the like of which their teenage audience had never heard before.
Insistent, pulsating power chords wasn’t something we Brits were familiar with back then. The roughed-up, distorted sound was a million miles away from the purity and perfectionism of a Jim Reeves or a Cilla Black track. It felt like being in a packed, sweaty underground nightclub late at night just before the fights broke out.
The energy crackled, even through the tinny, under-powered speakers of a mid-60s transistor radio. Teenagers drifting off to sleep woke up sharpish. They wanted more of this…and they wanted it now.
More or less overnight, The Kinks went from virtual unknowns to a chart-topping act.
“You Really Got Me” first charted almost exactly 56 years ago on 19th August 1964. It would reach Number One in the UK charts and, shortly after, Number Seven on the Billboard Charts. In the States, the British Invasion was well and truly under way.
Although now considered to be one of the defining guitar riffs in rock music history, “You Really Got Me” started out on the piano, with a slower tempo and jazzier feel. Perhaps Ray Davies was aiming for the Mantovani market on the BBC first time round.
While there’s no doubt Ray Davies wrote the music and lyrics, his brother Dave Davies, then just 17, was responsible for the classic guitar riff.
Dave Davies’ lack of a writing credit for “You Really Got Me” has been the source of considerable friction between the brothers over the years, in an ongoing dispute that has, at times, made the antics of Liam and Noel Gallagher look like a bit of a sideshow.
Dave Davies invented the distinctive guitar sound on “You Really Got Me” by slashing the cone on his loudspeaker with a razor blade. He deliberately made something less pure than originally intended to better express his anger and frustration…no wonder so many rock and punk bands who came after cite The Kinks as an influence.
The Beatles wrote better songs. The Rolling Stones became more famous, interestingly after picking up a bit of The Kinks’ style. The Who became more rebellious and anarchic.
But The Kinks are often overlooked as one of rock music’s founding acts. Yes, they had their hits and people remember their name even today. With an estimated 50 million records sold worldwide, The Kinks are no slouches when it comes to their own achievements.
And yet…for most people at least…they’re not one of the bands you think of as providing one of the key foundations for rock music as we know it today.
Ray Davies could write a lovely song and his lyrics were like poetry. Dave Davies was the powerhouse at the heart of the band, no less important than the kings of the power chords like Malcolm Young from AC/DC or The Edge from U2.
That’s why the Davies brothers’ disagreements over the years are a great shame.
“You Really Got Me” is no more, no less, than a homage to unbridled lust. The lyrics tell the story well enough, but it’s the guitar that made the track a classic…
Girl, you really got me goin’
You got me so I don’t know what I’m doin’ now
Yeah, you really got me goin’
You got me so I can’t sleep at night
Yes, I think we get the idea here. This isn’t love. It’s lust.
It’s the urgency of lust, rather than the tenderness of love, that Dave Davies’ guitar picks up on and symbolises throughout the song.
Not only that, the intensity of feelings build and build as the song progresses towards its final…epic…climactic…finish.
“You Really Got Me” wasn’t the sort of record 1964’s pop-loving teenagers had heard before…frankly, it wasn’t the sort of record anybody had heard before. “You Really Got Me” broke new ground for pop music.
I’m not old enough to know if the BBC played “You Really Got Me” much back in 1964. I suspect they had to from time to time after it made Number One in the charts, but I’m sure a lot of senior managers shifted uneasily in their chairs every time it was played as they waited for the letters of protest to filter in.
“You Really Got Me” would have been a good song even without Dave Davies’ guitar. But it would never have been a great song without it.
Without The Kinks, without “You Really Got Me”, without Dave Davies’ guitar we’d probably still be listening to Mantovani, Frank Ifield and Jim Reeves.
If The Beatles launched modern pop music, The Kinks launched modern rock music. Punk, heavy metal and in fact any musical genre with guitars front and centre just wouldn’t exist had it not been for Dave Davies and his urgent, pulsating, intensifying, climactic guitar on “You Really Got Me”.
Turn your speakers up as high as you dare and imagine you’re a teenager late at night in the summer of 1964. You’ve just tuned the dial of your bedroom transistor radio to Radio Caroline for some pop music after a day being forced to listen to the sterile output of a state broadcaster catering to the musical preferences of your parent and grandparents.
The DJ drops the needle on “You Really Got Me”…and the world of music changes for ever…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/09nZ9ZDWq1rTkmM3WjvMvF