The Kinks Turn Sixty: reflecting on 1968’s “Till Death Us Do Part”

This year the legendary British rock n’ roll band, the Kinks, celebrate the 60th anniversary of their formation. There were four original members, but Peter Quaife, the anchoring bassist of the band, who quit them twice, finally leaving in 1969, died at 66 in 2010. According to their website, the remaining three members, the brothers Davies, Ray and Dave, and drummer Mick Avory have all had a hand in selecting tunes and writing notes for a new two-part anthology of thematically arranged Kinks gems. Called The Journey, the first 2 CD set releases a week from today.

One can see the track listings for Part I at various interweb stops, including the band’s website: In theory, Part I covers the years 1964-1975; however, it is not clear that songs recorded before 1975, will not be on Part II, which, sadly, is not available for viewing yet, meaning I can continue to hope that some of my favorites will not be left behind. There is one especially I want to talk about, in just a minute.

Regarding this anniversary, I’m feeling oddly displaced by it. Having been an ardent fan from hearing the early radio snarl of “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” to seeing them live  at the Warwick Music (Warwick, RI), Tent during the summer of their last go-round in 1995,  I’m trying to imagine what someone in 1963 might have had to say about the popular music of 1903, when there were two record labels, Edison and Victor, and Harry West was slaying them with “I Could Love You In A Steam Heat Flat.” I cannot. Likewise, what might one say about the Weeknd’s “Die for You,” when he’s sixty years into his career? Will Abel Makkonen Testaye still be treading the boards in 2070?

The whole business makes me dizzy, and honestly, I don’t care about any of it unless there’s some magic in the work itself, a spark in the melody or the lyric that distinguishes the work in the way all great art is distinguished, by its timelessness and universal appeal. A song, for the sake of this argument, like the small wonder that is 1968’s, “Till Death Us Do Part.”

Between 1966 and 1969, the Kinks were in the studio a lot. This is the era of their landmark album, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society (11/69), and immediately preceding that, an album called Four More Respected Gentlemen, which Ray Davies reluctantly delivered to Reprise, the band’s record label, where it was immediately scrapped. Around the same time, Dave Davies’ was attempting to make another solo record, and there was endless talk of Ray working on one. So, regarding “Till Death Us Do Part,” I’ll try to avoid origin story rabbit holes, for late 1960’s Kinks is the stuff of heady discography.

Suffice to say, the song was most likely written in 1968, as the closing theme for a film based on the popular British sitcom, Till Death Us Do Part, a show which inspired Norman Lear’s All in the Family. Although sung by a session man named Chas Mills, Mills was backed by the Kinks.

In the U.S., the song shows up as the first track on 1973’s The Great Lost Kinks Album, a compilation of unreleased tracks and non-album B-sides recorded between 1966 and 1970 for Reprise, whom the band left for RCA in 1971. Can you spell contractual obligation?

Apparently, the album caught the Kinks unawares. One story goes that Ray Davies discovered its existence when he came across a reference to it in Billboard magazine, another is that he knew nothing about it until he received a copy in the mail from a fan. His reaction was to take legal action against Reprise, eventually forcing them to delete the record from their catalogue in 1975.

The song eventually found its way to a 2016 7” 4-song EP, also called Till Death Us Do Part, after languishing in obscurity for decades.

The title is a variation on the familiar phrase from the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer (“till death do us part”), which establishes its literary credibility immediately. And it is a most literary work from beginning to end, highlighted by one of Davies’ best similes, “life is like a school/but I’m not prepared to keep on learning”, served up with the weary innocence that characterizes such songs as, “This is Where I Belong,” “Days,” and “Do You Remember Walter?”

Musically, it’s one of their British dance hall meets New Orleans marching band numbers, featuring a martial drumbeat, banjo, and trombone. Certainly ta case can be made for compiling all the Kinks songs written in this vein because with the exception perhaps of “Look a Little On the Sunny Side?”, “Sitting By the Riverside,” and “Alcohol,” they have been largely overlooked.

Much of Ray’s lyric writing during this period touches on the day to day. His is a realism, sometimes sardonic, sometimes richly observational, that is often underscored by doomed romanticism. “In my little life,” says the lovelorn singer, “I know the world must keep on turning, even though it leaves me far behind.”

He aspires to be better. For her, he knows he needs to be because she might be leaving him.

The tempo changes a little past halfway through, the song almost stopping, before the horns come back and the singer declares that despite his shortcomings, “this is our life, to live together, …Not just a day/but ‘til forever…Until death us do part.”

The lines are delivered more as hopeful assertion than invocation. Whatever drama is happening in the moment is undercut in the end by a buoyant chorus of La-la-las, provided in part by Davies’ then wife, Rasa, with whom he stayed married until 1973, not nearly playing out the hope of the lyric.

You can find a recording of “Till Death Us Do Part,” here:

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