The Kinks, on top of the world.
Levitin left Elvis off his list because the person he was making the list for “had heard Elvis Presley, so I didn’t need to cover that.” This left me with the decision of whether to do the same. For serious Elvis people, this would be no decision at all; the question would be which Elvis song to put on. “That’s All Right, Mama”? “Blue Suede Shoes”? “Heartbreak Hotel”? “Hound Dog”?
But I am not a serious Elvis person. I enjoy his work, admire his talent, and yet there’s something lacking in his music that is essential to what I think of as rock’n’roll. For lack of a better word, I would call it balls. It’s laughable to me that he was once considered so dangerous, because however salacious the material, there’s always a softness about Elvis, an absence of real menace. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — it’s part of what made him lovable, and vulnerable. Some cynics will try to tell you that Elvis was the white devil who stole rock’n’roll, watered it down, and sold it to the mainstream, but in my version of the story he was a guileless soul who happened to be the right guy in the right place at the right time, and got famous beyond all comprehension. Which is the tragedy of Elvis, and that’s more than I want to get into here; if you don’t already know the story, read Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love. (As a sidenote, if I was going to pick an Elvis song, it would probably be “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?” from the ’68 comeback special — the rawest and realest he ever sounded.)
So the Elvis people will squawk, but I’m skipping right to the 60s, when rock’n’roll went to England. It found a very receptive audience there among the country’s young people, who embraced this raucous new musical form despite their cultural handicap. Kids across the land not only bought the records but started their own bands. And this points up a key to rock’n’roll’s appeal that I think is often overlooked. Yes it’s rhythmic, yes it’s rebellious, but it’s also easy to play. Unlike jazz or swing or big band music, any lunkhead with a guitar can play some approximation of rock’n’roll, thus becoming a participant rather than a spectator.
But when the English started playing rock’n’roll, they didn’t get it quite right — again, the cultural handicap. So what they ended up with was something different, a new iteration of the idea of rock’n’roll that was at once more primitive (i.e. less virtuosic, Clapton notwithstanding) and more refined by virtue of its basic Britishness. I can’t think of a better embodiment of this than the Kinks, nice provincial lads who were also known to get into vicious fraternal fistfights. Later in their career the Kinks would achieve great musical sophistication, but in 1964 they got the world’s attention with the stomping, easy-on-the-brain rocker “You Really Got Me,” about which the All-Music Guide has this to say:
To explain why and how this song works would be against its very nature; it operates on a purely visceral level. Those chords, the riff, and the sentiment “you really got me” are basically all you need to understand its essence. At the time, it was likened to a play on the ambiguous “Louie Louie,” another classic from the era. But a few facts are in order: Dave Davies’ fuzz-tone guitar was a groundbreaking sound at the time, achieved by him cutting the speaker of his amp with a razor blade and poking pins into it. The song was a million-seller.
Along with “Louie Louie” and “Wild Thing,” “You Really Got Me” is one of those songs that even the crudest garage band can play, if not play well. Among the big names who have recorded it are Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople, the 13th Floor Elevators, Sly and the Family Stone, Toots and the Maytals, and of course Van Halen, whose version set a new standard for flashy wankery but was nevertheless a huge hit.
So with apologies to the Stones, the Who, the Them, the Yardbirds, and the Animals, the Kinks take home the hardware. Let’s give them a big hand.