The raw sound of Dave Davies’ lead guitar on “You Really Got Me” has been called the blueprint for the power chords of heavy metal and punk rock. Written by Ray Davies, the song topped the British charts and introduced the Kinks to America, where it was a Top 10 hit. But the song that revolutionized rock was recorded in a variety of styles before the raucous single was released in September 1964.
In early 1964 Ray and the Kinks were under pressure from Pye Records to produce a hit. As their first single, the label demanded the Kinks record Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” in the Merseybeat style of other British Invasion bands.
Their follow-up was “You Still Want Me.”
Both singles flopped.
Determined to succeed or fail on his own terms, Ray wrote “You Really Got Me” on an upright piano in his family’s Muswell Hill home in March 1964. Ray explained in The Kinks: All Day and All of the Night: Day by Day Concerts, Recordings, and Broadcasts, 1961–1996 that his original version did not resemble the final track.
“I wanted it to be a jazz-type tune, because that’s what I liked at the time. It’s written originally around a sax line . . . Dave ended up playing the sax line in fuzz guitar and it took the song a step further.”
“Ray was a great fan of Gerry Mulligan,” added Dave. “And as he sat at the piano at home he sort of messed around in a vein similar to Mulligan and came up with this figure based on a 12-bar blues.”
“It was recorded first at Pye with a producer who made it sound like Phil Spector, and there was no way that I was going to let them put it out,” Ray told Creem in 1981. “I said I’d leave the music business first because I’d never write another song like it. In the end, they gave us 200 pounds — which is like 400 bucks — to re-record it.”
“I actually think the slow, bluesy version would have also become a number one hit,” producer Shel Talmy told Sound on Sound. “However, when we all listened to it, Ray wanted to try doing it faster and he was right.”
Ray wanted to capture a raw sound more like a live performance, so the band and Talmy moved to IBC Studios to re-record the song.
“IBC, which had the deserved reputation of being the progenitor of most of England’s best engineers, was probably my favorite studio there,” explained Talmy. “The live area had very good acoustics and great natural echo chambers, while the upstairs control room had IBC’s own 24-input board, Altec speakers, an Ampex three-track machine and an Ampex mono machine.”
But the primitive sound of Dave’s lead guitar was bolstered by a tiny amplifier. The inexpensive 6-watt Elpico amp, purchased by Dave at a radio shop for six pounds, was plugged into a series of other, more powerful amps. Dave sliced the speaker cone with a razor blade to achieve the distorted fuzz tone. Ray has said that knitting needles were also stuck into the speakers. It was a unique sound in 1964, and guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page would make distortion part of their repertoire.
One of the enduring myths in rock is that Page played lead guitar on “You Really Got Me” instead of Dave Davies. The Kinks did use session players on their early records; though Mick Avory became the permanent drummer, Talmy insisted that Bobby Graham play drums on the single. Avory was left to pound on a tambourine. Jimmy Page played rhythm guitar, not lead, on a few Kinks tracks, but Ray and Talmy agree that Dave Davies played lead; remarkable considering Dave was just 16 at the time.