Reprinted with permission from Chapter 5 of Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story by Ray Davies. Published by Sterling. © 2013 Sterling. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website, or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
The Fillmore East was the first Kinks gig on our return to New York City in October of 1969. When we got to town, there was a mass of interviews to do—a press conference was organised with mainly college newspapers, including Rolling Stone and Creem magazines, all of them wanting to know what it was like for us to be returning to America, where we had been banned. The “ban” had actually made us seem “cool,” since many students were critical of American politics at that time.
I was amazed at how organised rock music had become. The American musical scene had certainly changed, and we were taken aback by our own almost naive attempts to conform to the new rock industry that had evolved since our previous American tour. Bill Graham, the promoter of the Fillmore, was one of the pioneers in launching the American music revolution. Since we’d been away we missed this renaissance, which included Woodstock, Monterey Pop, and other big festivals.
The Fillmore itself was situated in New York’s East Village, where the hippie culture had fully emerged. People wore caftans and beads, and were smoking pot openly on the street and back stage at the venue. We were ushered back stage by huge security guards—unlike the out-of-shape “bouncers” we were accustomed to in the UK—and they insisted that we show our backstage passes no matter who we were. Our needs were taken care of by the Fillmore staff and, without going into too much detail, I mean all our needs were taken care of—ironing shirts, getting refreshments, running errands—which was unheard of at concerts in the UK. There was catering— not sweaty, dried-up cheese-and-Spam rolls like those we would have been given in England, but an enticing array of Asian cuisine and exotic nibbles. Rock and roll had turned into a mini industry in our time away from the United States, but the whole thing had become slightly decadent; as Grenville said, “It’s like an empire in decline.”
There seemed to be a parallel between the imperialistic qualities of the British Empire and the American “empire” that was under assault in Asia. Moral standards hadn’t exactly dropped, they were just there for everybody to see and ignore. Excess ruled, and I was grateful that our dressing-room door had a lock on it. Backstage personnel assisted Ken Jones with equipment; in the UK, he sometimes had to load up the van single-handedly. Onstage we were confronted with freaky light shows and stage monitors so that we could actually hear what we were playing. This was the first time we had ever encountered this new technological phenomenon. On all our other tours, including our recent trips into Europe, we had just used PA and front-of-house systems. There were no such extravagances as stage monitors. It was a completely new learning curve for us as musicians, and it made our performance during sound check seem more amateurish and tentative than usual.
It was the “prodigals’” return, the second coming, but our performance was below par. Unused to the sophisticated stage equipment, we must have sounded like a bunch of skiffle players in the back room of a pub. Our management in all their wisdom had done an endorsement deal with an amplifier company that had an unpronounceable name. We had made our name and reputation using small VOX amplifiers—which had worked successfully all over the world—but in America, for some reason, everything had to be bigger. It was also a time when amplifiers were stacked behind the musicians, but we didn’t have the luxury of doing production rehearsals before a tour. We’d literally come straight off the stage of a small provincial theatre in England, only to be thrown into the deep end with a technology that we were totally unfamiliar and unconfident with.
We were promoting our new album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), and the Fillmore was to be a tastemaker event that would set the tone for the rest of the U.S. dates. But anyone who witnessed the Kinks’ concerts at that time was astounded by the contradictions in our performance. Foppish, almost effeminate behaviour in some songs and brutal, brute force in some of the harder rock songs.
We shared the bill with two other acts that typified the extremes in our own stage performances: Spirit, a jazz-rock fusion band who punctuated their set by playing long guitar solos that went down a storm with the mainly stoned audience at the Fillmore, and the extravagantly named Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The Kinks were familiar with the Bonzos, led by Vivian Stanshall, who had pop hits in the UK with songs like “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” and they’d attained some cult following in America, which is why I think they were on the bill with us at the Fillmore on our return show. The Bonzos were popular because of their eccentric English wit and the outrageous stage antics carried out by the band members, which included Vivian, “Legs” Larry Smith, and Neil Innes.
There were two shows a night, and after the first show I was disturbed to see a punch-up going on near the Bonzo’s dressing room between two of the Bonzos. In what seemed like a girlish spat, they stood in the corridor throwing punches and swearing at one another, dressed in their full stage attire… This scene was in total contrast to the sombre, laid-back vibe of Spirit, who appeared to do everything in a completely meditative state. I don’t know what sort of food they were eating or what vitamins they were on, if any, but they must have had superefficient concentration because when we passed in the corridor back stage, my friendly greeting of “Hi” was met with glazed stares and unblinking eyes as they walked past. Maybe intense focus was a new ingredient in rock and roll.
The Bonzos played brilliantly and got laughs and applause in admiration of their musical prowess. However, they were far from being a joke band; they were all very accomplished musicians. Spirit seemed like the soundtrack to a nation in turmoil; relentlessly unflinching, complete tunnel vision. From back stage it sounded like the audience gave an exhausted but collective “Yeah, man” at the end of each song. Fists punched the air in acknowledgment, and stagehands nodded in approval, while groupies and friends of the band hovered piously at the side of the stage. Spirit was the epitome of power and psychedelic progressive rock, and they were very influential in their own way. The band made extensive use of amplified gizmos, and while it may have seemed a total mismatch to have Spirit on with the Kinks at the time, the combination of “You Really Got Me” and Spirit’s instrumental sound effects may have been an influence on Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, who had opened for Spirit a year earlier.
After a short intermission it was time for the Kinks to make their American return. Bill Graham walked onstage and made a speech about how we’d been “away too long” and the time had come for us to return. He paused and then said, “Please welcome to the stage the Kinks.” As we walked onstage I tried to thank Bill for the introduction, but the charismatic promoter walked straight past me, his eyes wide open and staring. He must have either been focused on something important like the next event in his busy calendar or what the box-office gross would be or recovering from something he’d eaten back stage. He stood at the side of the stage while we played our first few songs, and then he turned and disappeared with a bunch of minders. It struck me that in the new upper echelons of “Rock-and-Roll” America, even promoters had bodyguards.
The Kinks’ set was tentative at first, but then it evolved into something more confident and substantial as we took the audience through a journey of what we had been doing for the past four years. Hard-core fans got it immediately, whereas newcomers to our music looked on warily. Eventually they were won over by the hits we played from the British Invasion days; we then played a few songs from our new album, Arthur. The songs that had a more cutting rock edge to them and more complex structures were received with nods of approval, as if they were progressive enough to warrant an airing at the Fillmore. At the end of the show it was clear that we had made our mark—that we had taken our music somewhere since we first arrived in America years earlier, and, more than anything else, we had evolved.