Meaning Behind the Song: “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks

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Videos by American Songwriter

The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” is known as a classic rock song, but it didn’t start off that way.

“You Really Got Me” was written by Kinks singer and guitarist, Ray Davies, who was also the group’s chief songwriter. Two versions were recorded, the final being the one fans know and love today, a result of the band following their intuition. “You Really Got Me” became the band’s breakthrough hit, crossing over into the U.S. as one of the British Invasion acts that became popular in the U.S. amongst the pandemonium around the Beatles. The song catapulted to the top of the U.K. charts and reached the top 10 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

Below, we explore the origins of “You Really Got Me.”

Humble Beginnings

Written in 1964, the song was was initially crafted on a piano and leaned more into jazz than rock. According to the book, The Kinks: All Day and All of the Night: Day by Day Concerts, Recordings, and Broadcasts by Doug Hinman, Davies wrote the song in his family’s home and is quoted as telling now-defunct British newspaper Record Mirror that the song was written with a “light, jazzy tune,” the band playing around with the melody for hours. Legend has it that brother and bandmate Dave Davies had a dream that the song would be a hit and the band supposedly performed it for the first time at a club in Manchester, England before it was cut in the studio a week after it was written.

“When I came up with ‘[You Really Got Me]’ I hadn’t been writing songs very long at all,” Ray said about the song’s origins. “It was one of the first five I ever came up with. I wanted it to be a jazzy-type tune, because that’s what I liked at the time.”

Dave elaborated on Ray’s love of jazz, noting that his brother was a fan of American jazz musician Gerry Mulligan and that the tune “You Really Got Me” was inspired by Mulligan’s playing. Ray also said that the song was originally written around a saxophone hook and that it took several months for the record label to lend the song its ears.

“They had heard us play it live and thought there was no way we could ever make a record out of it,” he said, adding that when his brother played the sax line with fuzz guitar it “took the song a step further.”

In Nick Hasted’s book, You Really Got Me: The Story of the Kinks, Ray says that Dave’s guitar riff replaced a saxophone solo that was originally in the song, with Dave stating that the riff came to him “by accident.”

“I thought, ‘This is where we’re going to go.’ It gave a platform for Ray’s writing,” he said. Comparing the original melody to a “Gregorian chant,” Ray said he originally thought he was writing an R&B song.

“To this day, when I play a G chord I barre it in such a way that it’s neither major nor minor,” Ray explained. “When you sing the melody, it’s major, when you play the chords it’s minor. It’s like a bisexual chord. That’s the secret of ‘You Really Got Me.'”

Meaning Behind the Lyrics

Ray shared with Q magazine in 2016 that the song’s lyrics were inspired by a woman he saw dancing in the crowd at his show at a club in Piccadilly, a neighborhood in London. He compared her look to that of French singer Françoise Hardy.

“There was a young girl in the audience who I really liked,” he reminisced. “She had beautiful lips. Thin, but not skinny. A bit similar to Françoise Hardy. Not long hair, but down to [her shoulders]. Long enough to put your hands through…long enough to hold. I wrote ‘You Really Got Me’ for her, even though I never met her.”

He reinforced this sentiment in a Rolling Stone interview. “I just remembered this one girl dancing,” he recalled. “Sometimes you’re so overwhelmed by the presence of another person and you can’t put two words together.” Though his brother is the one who wrote it, fellow guitarist Dave interprets the song as a message of love for “street kids.” “‘You Really Got Me’ [is] such a pure record, really,” he said in The Story of the Kinks. “It’s a love song for street kids. They’re not going to wine and dine you, even if they knew how to chat you up. [They say] ‘I want you—come here.”

In fact, the Kinks had to get permission from the label to cut “You Really Got Me” and were recording a series of other songs at the same time they cut the demo for it. Ray said that the initial recording was very different than the one that became a hit.

“It had very way-out words and a funny sort of ending,” he said in The Kinks: All Day and All of the Night. “We did it differently on the record because [this] was really rather uncommercial.” Producer Shel Talmy also said that the original recording was “much blusier” and “slower.”

“If you picture the riff, you’ll see that it goes really well with blues,” Talmy comments. “It was extremely good and a totally different concept from the one that eventually came out. We all liked it at the time, decided to try it the other way, and then decided the later version should be the one that came out.”

Responding to Talmy’s assessment, Ray says the unreleased demo was “overproduced,” yet done with “good intention” by Talmy, but ultimately wasn’t the right fit. “He gave it this big sound and it lost the character of the group,” Ray remarked, adding that he wanted it to have a “raw sound.”

Ray also recalled how they had to fight for the song, saying that the label wanted to release the slower version and that their future with the label was dependent upon the success of “You Really Got Me.” “We fought and fought and eventually got the version we wanted out,” he said.

The Kinks decision paid off, becoming one of their signature hits. Van Halen also took to the song, their cover of “You Really Got Me” released as their debut single in 1978. Van Halen’s version peakedat No. 21 on the Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart in 2020 following frontman Eddie Van Halen’s death.

Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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