The Kinks, You Really Got Me (August 1964) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 1

We can (and probably will) argue about exactly what the musical term “heavy metal” means. In the absence of a rigorous definition, we can also argue about what the first heavy metal song was. But however you slice it, the Kinks’ debut single has to be a strong contender. It’s played using “power chords” (i.e. chords consisting only of the root and fifth, omitting the third); it’s played in an aggressive, brutal style; and the guitars are distorted, having been played through a speaker whose cone had been slashed with a razor blade.

The astonishing thing about You Really Got Me is its historical context. The Beatles had only just released their film A Hard Day’s Night, and were supporting it with such forgettable early-era singles as I’ll Cry InsteadMatchbox and Ain’t She Sweet. While nearly everyone was falling over themselves to sound like the Beatles, the Kinks went off in a completely different direction and made their bow with a song that must have been near-incomprehensible to audiences brought up on The Everly Brothers and who thought I Want to Hold You Hand was dangerously iconoclastic.

That’s not to say that the Kinks were immune to the Beatles’ influence — really, who was or indeed is? In this live performance, you can see a very strong early-era Beatles influence in how they present themselves. But the song itself is a million miles away from anything the Beatles were doing at that point.

The Kinks went on to become one of the more successful British Invasion bands, but with an interestingly varied style that saw them not often repeating the approach of You Really Got Me. (At least, not after their second single, All Day and All of the Night, which in truth is uncomfortably close to being a retread of the first). When I think of the Kinks, the first song I think of is Waterloo Sunset, which is about as different as a pop song can be from You Really Got Me (and which is a staple in my own folk-club repertoire).

[Note: for some reason, about 80% of the Kinks videos on YouTube are infected with “This video is not available in your country. Sorry about that” disease, which suggests to me that their prevention-of-publicity team is particularly efficient. So my apologies if the links above have rotted by the time you read this.]



26 responses to “The Kinks, You Really Got Me (August 1964) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 1

  1. Never really thought of the Kinls as Heavy Metal. In my mind “You Really Got Me” is more Punk than metal, but it predates Punk by about a decade. I guess at the time it’s from it’s closer to the forming genre of Heavy Metal than it is to the yet to come Punk.

  2. This is a fantastic song. So fun to perform life. You can just let everything go and go nuts. Wonderful pick!

  3. Well, Jason, I guess the first prototype versions of any style don’t sound a lot like its full flowering. There are other tracks on the list that hardly sounds like metal at all now, but which were classified that way at the time. Meanwhile, the next track in the timeline is very much more proto-punk than You Really Got Me. Stand by!

  4. Pingback: The Who, My Generation (November 1965) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 2 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  5. I agree with Jason here: if anything, it sounds like punk, it even has the structure of a punk song: short in length, a very short & simple solo, but still overall melodious – though having a very straightforward melody line and chord structure. Metal is quite different: often longer; the vocals and song as a whole usually aren’t very melodious.

    And as for the contents goes the same. It’s very much proto-punk, although not of the more angry / political kind: it’s about everyday stuff like being obsessed over a girl. None of the mandatory skulls, apocalyptic references, black leather, dripping blood and other pleasantries that make metal such an enjoyable experience :)

  6. The skulls, apocalypses, leather and blood come later. If you’ve now seen the second entry in this list, you’ll know where I think the roots of punk lie.

    I suppose at this early stage in the evolution of popular music, motion towards either metal or punk is mostly about getting rougher and louder — so any song that leans in one of those directions necessarily also leans in the other to some extent. That will change as we start to get into the highly technical instrumental parts of later Early Metal.

  7. Ah, thanks! I’ll make sure to read the rest, because while I really like (some) punk and (some) hardrock (like Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’), I find that “skull/death/etcetera obsession” of metal so strange that I can’t get past that. I’m still hoping that someday I’ll read or hear something that will somehow make me understand that better (and I’m quite serious about that).

  8. Back in the day, punks would focus on lyrical content as a means to get disdainful about metal, hard rock or whatever. (I’d gather we’re just using those terms interchangeably here.) Punk was about Actual Social Issues while metal was just about Satan, skulls and motorbikes.

    Needless to say, this wasn’t actually true. Firstly, a band like Black Sabbath did often sing about social issues. (On tracks like ‘War Pigs’ or ‘Children of the Grave.’) Secondly, punk’s obsession with highlighting Actual Social Issues didn’t stop it being completely bloody stupid most of the time. ‘White Riot’ by the Clash is by any standards a pretty stupid song.

    Besides, even if you take the lyrical preoccupations of metal at face value you’re really talking about Dark Romanticism. Which gets taken seriously as a literary genre, just not when the same themes get put to pounding riffs. It’s true of course that huge swathes of metal are hopelessly cliched and repetitive. But you could say a similar thing about punk.

    But more importantly this fixation with lyrical content seemed a way of not talking about the music. Disco songs quite neatly separate between love songs and “everybody dance” songs, nobody suggests we should make those two separate genres, because they understand the primary thing about disco is the beat. It suggested punk and metal were barely any different at root.

    Which actually I think is wrong! I think Luthien is right that punk, at least in its first wave, kept a melodic element even when it got loud and fast. There’s a melodic element to, say, the Ramones in a way there isn’t with, say, Motorhead. That changed in the eighties when hardcore punk came along and pushed the sound closer to metal, finally overlapping with it, and culminating in grunge.

  9. Hi, Gavin. I was hoping you’d turn up here. I think it’s fair to admit up front that not many heavy metal/hard rock songs are going to win any awards for their lyrics. For that, I go to Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. I suppose most metal bands have had a stab at social relevance — Deep Purple’s Place in Line, for example, or even Dio’s Invisible. But it generally feels like they’re day-tripping. Their hearts belong to the dragons and rainbows.

    Also: War Pigs rhymes “masses” with “masses”. But then you don’t look to Black Sabbath for artistry.

    The area where it looks like we’re going to disagree is on melody. I’m frankly astonished that you’d find that a characteristic of punk, whereas much of the best hard rock had melody very firmly at its core. Maybe what’s going on here is that the more melodic hard rockers are the ones that I gravitated towards, so that for example a band like UFO — who I can’t honestly say were particularly important in the scheme of things — still hold my attention because of their sheer melodicism and musicality.

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  11. Well, you’d have to blame me for mentioning that punk is melodious ;)

    But maybe it’s just the examples that buzz around in my head. Take the Sex Pistols: they still follow regular three-chord song structures. Of course they try to sound as disdainful and scornful as possible, but just listen to “Anarchy in the UK”: dear old Johnny actually sings the melody very straightforward and on the note. And on these lines:

    “Many ways to get what you want / I use the best / I use the rest / …”

    He wanders off-melody, just like Bob Dylan does – which, incidentally, always reminds me of an impatient moped / motorbike driver waiting for a red traffic light, nervously playing with the throttle.

    I won’t compare that to hard rock as the early Deep Purple etcetera: I know they are indeed very firmly melodious. I was thinking of the contrast with metal itself. I admit that I know next to nothing about metal. I know a couple of names, but to me it’s an indistinguishable tangle of skulls, thunderous drumming and the singing – well, that’s about as far removed from “melodious” as is technically feasible, i.e. stochastic noise emanating from a microphone stand with a hairball perched on top of it.
    Compared to that I’d say that punk is pretty melodious.

    I know that my opinion of metal is very caricatural and one-dimensional.
    Part of that is that I find it hard to take Dark Romanticism seriously, even if it has an “approved literary genre” stamp*. I just find wallowing in misery / sickness / violence / unpleasantness / vampires / etcetera unspeakably dreary. I even think that much of it is symptomatic of an underlying frustration or even depression (or other psychological trouble). Of course it’s everyone’s own business by what they care to be motivated or what they choose to sublimate from whatever occupies them; and I’ll neither deny that part of this is probably fuelled by social or political conditions and processes.
    I’m also pretty angry about things that happen in the world – but I cannot imagine how writing a song about, I don’t know, IT managers being bitten by vampires**, would remedy that. Or make me feel better***.

    At least, as long as it all feels so unbearably, oppressively serious and cramped as I perceive it. I’ve never seen a metal act showing a glimmer of self-deprecating humour – and while that’s also definitely true for most punk, it is not for the one punk band that I still like to listen to – the Dead Kennedys (“stealing people’s mail” :) ). While they are also genuinely angry, the morbid humour and sense of satire makes it all bearable.

    I just wish that I could find some sort of equivalent ‘point of entry’ for metal, but I fear that it doesn’t exist.

    * which always makes me wonder “by whom”?
    Since obvious brats such as Damien Hirst receive approval of the shadowy collective known as ‘art critique’, I fear that that’s nothing but a facade for the question ‘Does it fit into the current hype?’, instead of the rock-solid, zeitgeist-defying and balanced judgement that I once hoped it would be.

    ** well, most of those songs would go a bit further than that. Still, you know what I mean.

    *** If anything, it would achieve the opposite: as the imagination would start to kick in, I’d probably end up feeling sorry for the subject of the song.

  12. Hmm. Well, I just listened to Anarchy in the UK, and my considered critical opinion is that it’s rubbish. As an exemplar of the primacy of melody in punk rock, it’s not getting the job done for me. I’d have more patience with a band like The Clash. But then my knowledge of punk is pretty poor.

    As for “indistinguishable tangle of skulls, thunderous drumming and the singing […] stochastic noise” — well, I am sympathetic to that reading. There’s certainly plenty of heavy metal that I wouldn’t waste my time on for precisely that reason. As with so many genres, it’s about finding the good representatives, which aren’t necessarily the famous ones. And of course what’s “good” will differ for different people.

    On Dark Romanticism: I agree that in the end it’s a cul-de-sac, and the childish “Satanism” of some bands has always left me cold, even before I was a Christian. But I certainly see how some aspects of Dark Romanticism can appeal. At its best, it’s an evocation of something greater than ourselves, even a glimpse of the numinous. You can hear it in its negative form in, say, Rainbow’s Run with the Wolf — as I previously noted, when Dio howls “There’s a hole in the sky / something evil passing by”, there’s a quality of terror that can be compelling — like the terror of riding a really good roller-coaster.

    But better still is the positive form of Dark Romanticism, as in Blue Oyster Cult’s song I Love the Night, which is about the seductive appeal of vampire immortality — the call to surrender to something that appears beautiful even when you know that it really isn’t. If I had to liken that song to a real-life experience, it would be vertigo: when you stand at the top of a cliff, and part of your hindbrain knows that you could take a single step and be committed irrevocably to the short, final vertical journey. You don’t want to jump; but you feel something inside you that is pulled towards it. Does that make any kind of sense to you?

  13. Sabbath even brazenly rhymed “masses” with “masses” in the first couplet! But at least it does rhyme. Stiff Little Fingers came out with “Law and order/They don’t do what they oughta”. You need to really slur that one if you’re going to get away with it.
    I’ve never understood the fixation people have with lyrics. I ssupect people seize on them just because they seem easier to account. But even with the ‘good’ lyricists you couldn’t really abstract the lyrics from the music in the way people imagine. But then I don’t see why you should have to. I happened to catch some of ‘Heavy Metal Britannia’ when it was re-shown, and most bands just said their lyrics just seemed something that went with the music. Surely its only a problem if those lyrics don’t go with the music.
    Plus, particularly when it comes to music, I don’t understand the problem with stupid. Motorhead were stupid but they were gloriously stupid. It often comes across in interviews that Lemmy is actually a smart guy. He just likes stupid. And I can be a fan myself.
    Particularly with late Seventies British punk (the music people most associate with punk), underneath all the Year Zero rhetoric its all about melody and is virtually indistinguishable from Power Pop. I’ve always thought the Sex Pistols were blagging it about ‘Pretty Vacant’ being based on ‘SOS’. But it’s something that’s generally true. The Sex Pistols had a lot more in common with Abba than they did with Black Sabbath.
    Whereas what really defines metal is the riff. Brian Eno said the joy of metal came from feeling “encased in sound”. So, me figuring this, its probably unsurprising that I genereally regard melodic metal as watered-down beer. When Zeppelin and Sabbath came out, initially there didn’t seem to be any way to follow in their wake that didn’t involve watering it down or adding more melody. I think that’s where bands like UFO come from, and in all honesty none of it interests me. It was only with Motorhead that people started devising ways of making it more powerful and more intense. The development of metal was reductive – stripping out the melody, uncoupling the blues base – like whittling down a stick to a sharp point.
    (Which feels like such a generalisation I suppose I should say exceptions apply. Except I can’t think of many. Thin Lizzy, maybe?)
    On Dark Romanticism I pretty much agree with Mike. Arguably it just did what metal did only first – endlessly recycling the same few tropes until all context or meaning was entirely worn out. But you can’t judge a genre by it’s work practitioners. Otherwise you wouldn’t get to like anything.
    Further, Dark Romanticm was always going to be popular with the young – so it was probably always going to appear in popular music somehow. Death can’t help but feel at its most enticing when you’re at the height of life. I loved Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ when still at school, not because it spoke about my life but because I wanted it to. “I tell you to enjoy life/ I wish I could but its too late”. I couldn’t wait until I’d had the chance to screw my life up enough that it could all be true of me. At that age you long for experience, and you’re all but oblivious whether the experience is good or bad.
    And while I’m not a Christian, also agreed it is absurd and reductive to equate Dark Romanticism with Satanism. As David Tibet likes to sing “I’m sicksicksick of sixsixsix”. Satanists are just Christians who haven’t read the rulebook right.
    Luthien – Ministry. Ministry are metal and funny. Really, really funny.

  14. Sheesh, Gavin, go ahead and anticipate 90% of the rest of the series, why don’t you? :-)

    Seriously, there’s a lot to agree with in that long comment. It’s certainly true that in much metal the meaning of the words is pretty much irrelevant — they’re just there to provide some specific syllables for the singer to use as he contributes to the over-all sound, (“Nobody’s gonna take my head / I got speed inside my brain / Nobody’s gonna steal my head / I’m gonna nail it to my brain”). I can live with that, but it does leave me a bit frustrated. Why can’t we have more? Why can’t something be both musically exciting and lyrically interesting? (Answer: it can, but then we call it prog instead of metal.)

    I know I’m on dangerous ground in saying this, but it feels to me like there’s a big difference between someone clever acting dumb (Lemmy) and someone who is just dumb. Maybe I am reading a difference into the text that is really only there in the subtext.

    If you feel that metal is all about riffs, then you will approve of the forthcoming selection #4.

    Finally: two golden quotes in your comment. “I couldn’t wait until I’d had the chance to screw my life up enough that it could all be true of me.” And “Satanists are just Christians who haven’t read the rulebook right.” Thank you for throwing them away in a comment on my blog instead of saving them up for your own blog as you ought to have :-)

  15. I just wanted to mention that I’m finding this series fascinating.

    As somebody who has never tried to appreciate metal, and appreciates a very small set of punk, I am looking forward to expanding my appreciation of both.

  16. Thanks, femtohacker, that’s great to hear. I’m finding it fun to write too! Although I do live in fear of people pointing out all the ways my timeline is deficient — the important bands and songs that I’ve missed and the events that I’ve misinterpreted.

  17. That was me, by the way, I have commented here before, but it used my wordpress account that time.

  18. Oh, welcome back, NickS! I’ve read quite a bit of the music criticism on your site, and listened a fair bit to your “Living Room Songs” compilation even though it’s very much not the kind of thing I usually listen to.

  19. Oh, thank you. I’m sorry that I’ve let my blog lapse, and I keep hoping to have time to pick it up again.

    I have always enjoyed your music writing, and for this series, I should compliment you in particular for the post on “Purple Haze.” That’s a song that I’ve never listened to all that closely, simply because it isn’t to my tastes, but you offer a clear description of its virtues.

    Finally, since you liked, “Living Room Songs” I should link to the one other compilation that I’ve posted online, “Unconventional Country.” It may not be any more to your tastes, but I’m quite pleased with how it turned out — it focuses on the singer/songwriter aspects of country music and there’s quite a range of material.

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  25. Heck no, the Kinks are million miles ahead of anything the Beatles were doing. The Kinks were the band who created heavy metal. The Beatles are overrated.

  26. Needless to say, I strongly disagree.

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