The Kinks musical, Sunny Afternoon, finishes its run at Hampstead Theatre tomorrow and is tipped for a West End transfer after critical raves for its portrayal of the rise of Muswell Hill brothers Ray and Dave Davies. Joe Penhall and Edward Hall’s work is a leap ahead of the average jukebox musical, partly because it gives audiences the right band in the right place. With their vivid, witty portrayals of London life, stretching from 1966’s Big Black Smoke to Ray Davies’s 2009 single Postcard from London, there’s a strong case for The Kinks as the definitive sound of our city.
At key moments in our recent history, they are there. The musical puts them at the centre of the greatest summer of all, 1966. Perched at No 1 in a chart littered with all-time classics, their song Sunny Afternoon was bellowed by the Wembley Stadium masses as England lifted the World Cup on home turf. During probably the next most euphoric summer, 2012, there was Davies again, hopping out of a black cab on to a global stage to sing Waterloo Sunset at the Olympic Games closing ceremony.
When I met the songwriter, now 69, that August, he was a tetchy, rambling interviewee, reluctant to accept national treasure status and wary of the pace of change where he still lives, not far from his birthplace in Fortis Green.
“Everywhere I go it looks and feels like America,” he moaned on his 2007 song, Working Man’s Café. Yet London remains his favourite subject: his most recent greatest hits collection came with a second disc of 22 London songs, depicting characters ranging from the Carnaby Street dandy of Dedicated Follower of Fashion to the newspaper complainer of Yours Truly, Confused N10.
The rock historians’ line is that The Kinks shifted from the America-friendly garage rock of early hits such as You Really Got Me to more plaintive numbers both celebrating and skewering Englishness (The Village Green Preservation Society could be a Ukip anthem if it weren’t ironic) because they were banned from touring the US in the late Sixties. Davies has disputed that. Either way, his skill for crafting universal music out of minutiae, from Waterloo Sunset’s commuting lovers Terry and Julie to the transgender Soho resident with the dark brown voice in Lola, has never been matched.
Yet, as outraged Clash, Bowie, Bolan or Dizzee Rascal fans will have been yelling since the first paragraph, London is far too big to be represented by a single voice. Like its population, it has long been a musical melting pot.
Listen to Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener’s early Fifties song London is the Place for Me to hear the beginnings of a Caribbean influence on our music, now experienced every year amid the clashing soundsystems of the Notting Hill Carnival.
It’s still the place every musician must head to sooner or later, whether to be discovered in the bars of Dalston or Camden (American stars The White Stripes, The Killers, The Strokes and Kings of Leon all broke here first and express gratitude to London fans every time they return) or to headline at the world’s most popular venue, The O2.
The live scene is overflowing with unique spaces, from churches including the Union Chapel to vintage music halls such as Wilton’s.
Of home-grown talent we can boast all day: the classic rock of The Who and The Rolling Stones, the sonic daring of Pink Floyd and David Bowie, the savage punk of The Clash and the Sex Pistols, clubland powers such as Paul Oakenfold and Basement Jaxx, jolly ska from Madness, the nostalgic indie of Blur and Suede, rap success stories Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah and Plan B and the globe-conquering soul of Adele and Amy Winehouse.
Sometimes it even feels like The Beatles are only a Liverpool act on a technicality — all the best stuff happened down here at music’s holiest shrine, Abbey Road Studios.
Today we can celebrate the success of younger stars such as Hackney dance collective Rudimental, who look like poster children for diversity, and aptly named trio London Grammar, taking soul into a new digital realm. New dance/soul duo Jungle look like being the next to hit big and sound like they could come from nowhere else but here.
We can credit the arty side of our education system for inspiring some of our most notable musicians. Ray Davies went to Hornsey College of Art. Pete Townshend and Ronnie Wood were at Ealing Art College. Three-quarters of Blur studied at Goldsmiths, as did more recent stars Katy B and James Blake. Today the pop-orientated BRIT School in Croydon churns out hit-makers at a rate of knots.
This summer another key London band are back on stage. The reunited Libertines will top the bill at Hyde Park on July 5 and provide a welcome part of this year’s summer soundtrack.
For music seems to get more noticeable around here when the summer arrives. There’s always a song that ends up defining this season as soon as car windows come down and garden parties begin. Last year it was Daft Punk’s Get Lucky or, depending on how you felt about its sexist undertones, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.
This year the singer of both of those songs, Pharrell Williams, continues to dominate the charts with the sunny funk of his song Happy, while London-based dance don Calvin Harris has gone for the obvious on his new single, Summer.
There are plenty of other contenders — the music-identifying service Shazam has just published a list of 2014 predictions based on its data, with a top three featuring Ed Sheeran’s Sing, Ariana Grande’s Problem and Sam Smith’s Stay With Me.
There’s nothing to stop you from ignoring current trends and returning to a Kinks-flavoured soundtrack once again, though. “Now I’m sitting here, sipping at my ice-cold beer, lazing on a sunny afternoon,” sings Davies — still the simplest, most appealing picture of a London summer almost 50 years on.