218. ‘Sunny Afternoon’, by The Kinks

It’s high summer. The sun bakes in the sky, heat haze rises from the tarmac, a willow droops lazily by the river. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ is a record that has always, ever since I first heard it as a kid, conjured up an image in my mind. An image of a man, on the lawn of his country house, in a deckchair, with a tall, icy drink in hand.

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Sunny Afternoon, by The Kinks (their 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 7th – 21st July 1966

The intro descends, like the weeping willow, into a tale of upper-class woe. I mentioned that the previous #1, ‘Paperback Writer’, had a satirical edge to it, and The Kinks take it up a notch here. The taxman’s taken all my dough, And left me in my stately home, Lazin’ on a sunny afternoon… A rich man has been fleeced, by the government and then by his girlfriend, and has been left with nothing. It’s standard rock star stuff: I’m famous, successful and now I’m being taxed through the nose. They’ve taken my yacht, oh woe is me…. (Another obvious Beatles comparison would be to ‘Taxman’)

Except, The Kinks were cleverer than that. Perhaps aware that people might not be too sympathetic to rich musicians moaning about tax rates, they invented a character to take us through the song. A not terribly nice character: My girlfriend’s run off with my car, And gone back to her ma and pa, Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty… You don’t feel sorry that he’s been left with nothing but his ice cold beer… They’re complaining, sure (the progressive tax rate at the time was 83%!), but in a very palatable way.

I love this song. It’s a ‘never-skip’ whenever it pops up in a playlist. And I especially love the bridge, with its music-hall piano. Aw, Save me, Save me, Save me from this squeeze…and then a line I loved shouting out as a child… I got a big fat mama, Tryin’ to break me… Those two lines are one of the most brilliant pop moments of the decade. And the song as a whole is near-perfect: it works both as pure summery pop, and as knowing satire. And then there’s the jingly-jangly fade-out, which is very borrowed-from-The Beatles.

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I also love this version of The Kinks, the one that had moved past the R&B, garage rock of ‘You Really Got Me’, into the uber-British phase of their career – the years of ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, and ‘Autumn Almanac’. I’m going to go a little link-crazy here as, tragically, this is their final UK #1 single. And yes, that does mean ‘Waterloo Sunset’ in 1967, and ‘Lola’ in 1970, two of their best-known and best-loved hits, only reached #2…

It feels as if The Kinks occupy a strange place in pop music history. They were successful, and popular, and very, very good. But they seem to be permanently in the shadow of The Beatles and The Stones, and other stone-cold sixties legends. Elvis, Cliff, Dylan and The Who…  Perhaps they were too British, too playful in the way they leapt between genres, and wrote songs about once-rich aristocrats, London dandies, and drag-queens. They’re big, and very well-respected; but it feels as if they should be bigger, and even better-respected. Take a moment, then, I urge you, to listen to The Kinks today. Starting with this, their final #1 single – as clever as it is catchy. The perfect kind of pop.

Catch up on the previous 217 #1s with this playlist:

13 thoughts on “218. ‘Sunny Afternoon’, by The Kinks

  1. badfinger20

    That was a wonderful description of the song and band. I’ve wondered the same about them. As far as America goes I do believe they were “too British” but I never understood that. I love their music and understand it fine.

    As they went along they got even more British. It didn’t bother me because I loved it. I had to look up Mother Riley, Mrs. Mopp, and other references but that was cool to me. Sunny Afternoon’s mood and feel are great. I cannot believe this is the last number 1…so far. They are supposedly releasing a new album.

    The Beatles or The Stones were more universal… The Who showed a bit more British…The Kinks were a no brainer.

    I look at some of Bruce Springsteen’s songs and think…he is an American Ray Davis… both write about the way of life in their respective countries…

    Anyway…great post.

    1. Why, thank you. I really do love The Kinks, and hope that came through in the post. I think it’s the fact that they still feel a little niche… I mean, everybody loves The Beatles, but The Kinks fall that little bit under the radar…

      And it can’t just be their ‘Britishness’, as I feel that even in the UK they are behind The Beatles, Stones and The Who in terms of being remembered today. (I do think that they are still clearly in the ‘Big 4’ of sixties rock ‘n’ roll)…

      And I do like your optimism in thinking they might yet score another #1 single… That would be a story and a half!

      1. badfinger20

        I saw them in 1982 or 83 and it was great. One of the best concerts I ever went to. Def Leopard was playing in a bigger arena the same night…I made the right choice.

        They are quirky…they shot themselves in the foot in America. They weren’t able to tour for years in the 60s because…don’t quote me but something to do with the union I believe…I’m not sure.

        I never count Ray out…I just hope they go through with it and come out with the album. They were talking about it in the summer.

        I agree…it’s the Beatles, Stones, Who, and Kinks… I never count Zeppelin in that for some reason.

      2. I think their ban had something to do with the fights between Ray and Dave… Mirrored by Oasis 30 years later… The union thought they were too rowdy!Which is a big shame…

        I’d say also Led Zep are different, in that they weren’t a singles band and released most of their biggest albums in the seventies.

      3. badfinger20

        All the while The Who were trashing everything in sight lol. Yes I have read that Ray and Dave were bad brothers early on when they were kids… Dave seems like he is the most assessable out of the two.

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  5. Great single, at their height they were fab – and very British. For me Ray Davies lost his knack for a great melody or catchy song after Waterloo Sunset – Lola being the main exception, though I also have affection for quirky Supersonic Rocketship. They became more of an album act, but spearheaded punk rock/New Wave acts like The Jam and The Pretenders who took on where they left off…

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