Listen to this track by Anglocentric, conceptually-minded Brit-pop forseers The Kinks. It’s “Victoria”, a single as taken from their 1969 album Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire). After a distinguished purple patch of singles, and a slight dip, this was a return to the Billboard charts.
In many ways, The Kinks are the forefathers of Brit-pop more so than the Beatles. Like their ’90s progeny, they dealt in decidedly British themes and presented material through an English cultural lens at a time when gaining an American following was so vital, and so very expected of every rock band coming out of England in the early-to-mid 1960s. Many would get there in varying degrees. The Kinks would, too – eventually. But, the Beatles/Stones/Who triumvirate would shut them out of the top three places in the minds of record buyers in North America at the time.
Arguably, this was down to a Kinks ban in America at just the wrong time; from 1965 until the end of the decade when the American charts were the most receptive to British bands, and just when their classic line-up (with Pete Quaife on bass) was active. There are a number of theories as to the reasons for the ban, ranging from the alienation of prominent promoters, to their volatile on-stage behaviour (before Oasis, there was the Kinks …), to not paying dues to the appropriate American unions.
So how did they survive, and actually thrive, under these conditions?
Well, I think being shut out of the usual channels in America freed them up to turn in artistic directions that they may not otherwise have considered, and much sooner than their peers. Head writer Ray Davies filtered his material through a certain regard for the mythological appeal to be found in British, particularly English culture. This direction would characterize Davies’ from that “banned” period onward, with singles that reference British Music Hall conventions, a singular observational style, and with distinctly English characters; dedicated followers of fashion, well-respected men about town, denizens of Waterloo station, Village Green Preservation Societies, and beyond.
“Victoria” was something of a bridge from one era to another, with a big crunchy guitar sound that would characterize their work into the ’70s. But, it also carries with it Ray Davies’ interest in British identity, and by extension his own identity as a writer observing it. There are heavy dollops of irony to be found in this song, of course. It’s hard to read this tune as some kind of nationalist statement, since you’d have to dismiss the humour found in it, too; it’s a love song to Queen Victoria!
But, at the same time, there is a genuine affection for all things British found here, mean rich people and all. This is really a tribute to a culture, warts and all. It’s romantic but it never tries to disguise the spottiness of its own history. It’s a balance that Davies seems to strike pretty easily, which is a tribute to his considerable skill as a songwriter.
Despite the earlier ban from playing in America, and their turn as keepers of the flame when it came to writing songs in their own cultural context, The Kinks would certainly make an impact on America in any case. Next year’s single to follow this one, “Lola”, would become an immortal classic rock staple. Both Van Halen and Anglo-American outfit The Pretenders would have chart action with Kinks tunes. Chrissie Hynde and Ray Davies would even get together! The band would have hits into the 1980s, particularly 1982’s “Come Dancing” which won them new audiences and a top 10 showing on the US charts, even while hearkening back to Davies’ past growing up in Muswell Hill in London.
And of course as mentioned, the Kinks provided the template for Brit-pop bands in the 1990s to write about their own experiences as British artists in a specific cultural context. The best in the batch created work that celebrates the micro-mythologies of Britain as they saw them, and selling millions of records in the process.
Who says Anglo-centrism doesn’t sell?
The Kinks officially broke up in 1996. But, you can learn more about their extensive history and catalog at TheKinks.info
Ray Davies is a solo artist, filmmaker, and author. Catch up to him at RayDavies.info