Sunday, 26 December 2010
There are very few songs where the first couple of bars announce themselves in what we now call iconic fashion. That is not merely in retrospect, meaning immediately recognizable when we hear it now, later, but recognized there and then, straight off. The first chords of the Elvis's Jailhouse Rock and the Beatles Hard Day's Night were that. It is the first five notes of You Really Got Me. I don't have the sheet music but it's the equivalent of F-G-G-F-G. It is very simple, raw, hard, straight and aggressive, no fancy chords. Then Ray Davies's voice comes, hitting the tune early, slightly whiny, faintly feminine, cracking a little, in unison with the last G and the song is up and running.
If it's as simple as that why can't anyone do it, or even the same performers do it every time? This ties in with something I always advise my poetry students: ENTER FIRMLY, STEP OFF LIGHTLY. Yes, but enter firm and fresh. I have no recollection of hearing that precise combination of first five notes before, not in that way. It was fresh.
Once started the tune doesn't stop but simply swells from raw to roar, upping its stakes. It retreats briefly to solo voice, then comes the guitar riff with the unrelenting bass, then it ups stakes again. Essentially, the song seems to be climbing pitch all the way to the end, where it suddenly stops on four chords.
It took a little getting used to the Ray Davies face. It looked young and old at once, maybe because of the gap tooth, maybe because of the strong lines forming round the mouth. There was nothing innocent about it, in fact it looked slightly debauched. For a sheltered fifteen year old, if one was going to look debauched (whatever that was) this was a good model, not too pretty or handsome (one was never going to be handsome) but with character (one might, eventually, possess character).
I was in my fourth year of what was then Kingsbury County Grammar School, a roughly twenty minute walk from home across the busy main road and the park. The fourth year was a relatively good one in a long, generally unhappy period. My school subjects were going well enough but I had no girlfriend, nor prospect of one, and was already falling in love with this or that far-out-of-reach pretty face. In the video above, at about 2 minutes, the camera picks out a pretty girl in the crowd of dancers, straight hair, fringe, lovely smile. She is dancing with someone, who turns round. He is a self-confident good-looking smug prat wearing dark glasses. He is what I was always going to be up against. Everything was always going to be out of reach. Out-of-reach was what defined life. On the other hand I was running and playing football which was something. It meant I was surviving. But then came The Beatles, The Kinks and the rest. Excitement and aspiration at once.
Aspiration to what? I had no idea. Perhaps only to this level of energy, a level of desire as raw and as self-confident as this. Having been brought up with middle-brow classical music, in a refugee blend of timidity, hysteria and expectation, You Really Got Me arrived at the door like a not quite permitted, not quite legitimate friend of a friend, someone you had to be careful of, someone not to be let into the house, and, ideally, avoided.
But what can you do? Those first five notes go straight into your spine and hit you very hard. Furthermore it was not only my spine it was pounding through, but through the very air. F-G-G-F-G. For something is happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones? It was the sound of pavements breaking, something hammering through.