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Ray Davies is one of the great writers of the British Invasion. He’s responsible for “Sunny Afternoon”, “Days”, “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lola”, basically many of the greatest pop songs ever written. I’m going to write about “You Really Got Me”, which is one of his simpler pieces of music. It’s not really that simple, actually, but because it hangs together so well, because the different, disparate parts sound like a marriage made in heaven, it gives the impression of simplicity.

It’s been cited as one of the earliest prototypes of punk music. That is a truism – in fact, a lot of pop music of the 60s is an earlier prototype of punk music. If you really understand punk music, at least the sort of punk music worth listening to to these ears, then punk is merely pop music played louder and faster. Ramones were just playing the Ronettes or the Beach Boys at breakneck speed. Husker Du were just playing the Byrds really loud and fast. The Sex Pistols were great fans of ABBA. (I’m not making this up.)

Anyway, “You Really Got Me” is relatively simple. Here’s the transcription. Note that this is not an exact transcription. In particular, Ray Davies sings a lot of blue notes, which are between the major 3rd and the minor 3rd.

The guitar figure is cha-cha-cha-cha-CHA. Now that is one hell of a earworm. That is a HOOK. It’s good to write a good hook, but a hook by itself is something that’s rarely engaging. Ray Davies is craftier than that. But that’s not the only thing, it spells out “YOU REAL-LY GOT ME”, over and over again. It foreshadows the punchline. That’s the thing about writing music: it’s like telling a joke. The build-up has to lead to the punchline.

The other aspect is the use of counterpoint in this song. The melody that he’s singing is in direct counterpoint with the main riff. The first line is “You – you really got me now.” He sings it over the “cha-cha-cha-cha-CHA”. Notice that the melody and the main riff have a very different rhythm figure from each other: they are mostly active at the points when the other is silent. They are mostly out of phase with each other. The singer sings a long note while the guitar is riffing. The short notes come in when the guitar is silent. But not always: it’s teasing, because the vocals are alternately in phase and out of phase with the guitar riff. This builds up tension until the tension is released when you get to the chorus.

The melody is very simple. First it starts in the tonic. “You Really Got Me” is in G. The theme is stated in G. It is stated in G again. Then it is transposed to A, and the tension builds up. Finally, it is transposed to D, and the tension boils over, climaxing in “You Really Got Me!” It’s very clear that he could have sang “you really got me” in unison to the “cha-cha-cha-cha-CHA”. It’s what your brain wants to hear. Instead, the melody as counterpoint is a way of keeping the two voices from merging into one for as long as they can, until at the end of the last line, they abruptly merge into unison – you really got me, you really got me.  And there’s the implied urgency of it, there’s nary a breath of air between “you got me so I can’t sleep at night” and “you really got me”. Just as well, the latter is sung by the rest of the band, so Ray Davies can draw some air.

What do we have here? We have a sort of a narrative. Most of the narratives in pop music are probably sexual in nature – foreplay, tension, release. No matter, this is the pattern and as a songwriter, you have to master it. Well, what is “you really got me” anyway? It’s a vague phrase, but if I were to venture a guess: When he’s singing it in G, it means “you turn me on”. When he’s singing it in A, it means “this foreplay is getting me hot”, and in D, it means “YES! YES! YES!” Well that’s that. (Sorry to those people who are offended, but if you’re disturbed by frank depictions of the sexual act, you got no business listening to rock music.)

However, I would urge you to observe that the structure is incredibly simple and elegant. The same melody is reused 3 times, in the theme, the buildup and the climax. There is a musical pun going on here. At the same time, he also recycles the use of the phrase “you really got me” in the same way. This is a very common theme of music: you use the same figure, but it is either stated in a different way, or transposed. In language, sometimes you say the same thing three times for dramatic effect. Repeating yourself is very klunky when you write something down. But what you sing something out, it sounds right. That is very important to note: you cannot judge lyrics by reading them off a printed page. You have to sing it out and figure out how it sounds. The effect will be different both ways.

So, no. It’s not enough to write a simple song. The parts are simple, but the whole is more than the sum of the parts, due to the very clever construction. The effects of hooks are multiplied when we have playing in counterpoint to each other. Counterpoint is very interesting to the ear.

The crescendo is very important. The crescendo gives the song focus, because otherwise a lot of the parts are samey. There is no real point in repetition otherwise. With the crescendo, the repetition is there to bring the song to the next level, to drive the narrative forwards. But there is another important function in repetition. Music is like architecture or software design. There are little ideas called “motifs”. It’s not really boring if you have all these similar sounding fragments embedded all over the same piece of music, so long as you change it a little when you repeat it. So the main melody is the same thing three times over, but sung in a different key every time. This is an important technique in narrative. All forms of narrative, not just music. The Wile E Coyote is always trying to catch the Road Runner, except that he is doing it slightly different every time. The Big Bad Wolf is always trying to eat the pig, except that a slightly different outcome results from a different pig. When you are writing a song, you try to repeat something you said before, but: it must be similar enough to something that was stated previously, that the listener can discern a thematic unity, otherwise there’s no consistency of design – otherwise it will be a non-sequitur. And it must be different enough so that it doesn’t end up a piece of shit like Pachelbel’s canon.

Another thing that this song is famous for is the raw and abrasive sounding guitars. They were not the first band to have this sound, since Ray Davies mentioned that “You Really Got Me” was inspired by “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. And as you know, “Louie Louie” is a staple for so many punk bands. A lot of the basic elements of punk music are here: the simple, back to basics structure. The abrasive noise. The almost shouted lyrics. What this song symbolizes is also punk music at its best and finest: a succinct pop song, played loud and fast. Much of the pop music of the early 60s would make a comeback in 1977. The ethos is the same: make it catchy, make it fast. Make it simple, elegant but fun to listen to.

This is a very important lesson for all songwriters out there. You must know how to write a simple song. You must understand what makes a simple song work. One hook, two hooks, three hooks, put it together. There’s no need to throw together too many parts if you don’t know how to make the parts fit. It is the same as writing an essay. Take an idea, develop it fully. Don’t let go of that idea until you have explored it fully, understand where all the parts stand in relation to each other. Practice discipline and conciseness.

So guys, you think that “You Really Got Me” is a simple song? Think again.

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