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.
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.
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: