Everything You Need To Know About Van Halen’s ‘You Really Got Me’
40 years ago today, a young California band took the Kinks' 1964 groundbreaking song, "You Really Got Me," and somehow made it their own. On Jan. 28, 1978, Van Halen released their cover of the Ray Davies-penned track as a single. Their debut album arrived a few weeks later.
"I’ll never forget hearing 'You Really Got Me' at two o’clock in the morning the very first time on the radio," Eddie Van Halen said in 1998. "I ran and woke up my mom and dad, going, 'We’re on the radio! We’re on the radio!'”
Within a month, 140 radio stations had it in rotation and the song made its way into the Top 40. It not only helped launch Van Halen's career, it has become one of their most durable songs. "You Really Got Me" is one of the few songs from the David Lee Roth era that remained in their sets when Sammy Hagar fronted the band, and the first song they played live when they reunited with Roth in 2007
It also gave the Kinks a second life with a younger generation. "Ray even introduces ‘You Really Got Me’ as a song that was made famous by Van Halen. Some of the young kids don't go back much further than that," brother and former bandmate Dave Davies noted in a 1991 interview.
Eddie Didn’t Want It to Be Van Halen’s Debut Single
Like many bands are in their early days, Van Halen began by playing clubs as a human jukebox. They had a repertoire of more than 200 cover songs they could play on demand, according to Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock 'n' Roll by John Scanlan. From that pool, there were at least six Kinks songs that could have made the cut for their debut album, Roth recalled. "Back in our bar days, I bought a double-album from K-Tel or something that 30 Kinks tunes on it. We learned all of one side and played them into the dirt during the club gigs, twice a night each one, because they sounded good and they were great to dance to."
But the band had an eye on bigger and better things than playing bars. Van Halen began recording demos in 1976, which led to a few West Coast concerts and the attention of Warner Bros. executives, who soon signed the band. But once recording for their debut album was underway in 1977, Warner Bros. and their producer chose "You Really Got Me" as the lead single. Despite the success it eventually garnered, the band wasn't too happy about it at the time. "It kind of bummed me out that [producer] Ted [Templeman] wanted our first single to be someone else's tune,” Eddie told Guitar World. "I would have maybe picked 'Jamie's Cryin,’ just because it was our own.”
Let’s Just Say Dave Davies Wasn’t Exactly a Fan
While the cover brought new life to Kinks fandom, it also weighed down their egos. When the Kinks toured behind Low Budget in 1979, Van Halen's version was the original for kids who were hearing the song for the first time, and the Kinks had to endure kudos on their cover. "Some kid came up to me after one of the gigs and said, 'I like your cover of Van Halen's You Really Got Me,' Dave Davies said. "You have to smile sometimes."
Perhaps more significantly, Davies felt the differences between the original and the cover were more than musical. They were fundamentally different songs, even in subject.
"When I heard the guys' [Van Halen's] version of it, I felt, you know 'This sounds really flashy,'" he noted in 2013, politely explaining how the updated version was a product of its time. "But it depicted the era, didn't it? In that it was in the era when stadium rock was big, and guitars were flashier, and tight trousers, and swanky. ... Our version is very much about survival and kids trying to express themselves."
But he wasn't always as polite or complimentary. In an interview three years earlier, he let a harsher version of his feelings fly. "It was like, 'Hey man, look at me with my tight trousers! Here's our version of 'You Really Got Me!'"
And in a particularly bitter comment, Davies added "There's the thing: good art isn't always about having the comfiest technique. I shouldn't encourage him, but I'm sure Eddie Van Halen played better when he was drunk. But it must be a good record if people like it."
His brother Ray, on the other hand, has called it his favorite cover of one of his songs. “It was a big hit for them and put them on a career of excess and sent them on the road. So I enjoyed that one."
Van Halen Had to Rush the Song Out Before It Got Swiped
Angel almost beat them to the punch with a cover of their own that was inspired by Van Halen's. Eddie told Guitar World that he had played them the as-yet unreleased Van Halen album at drummer Barry Brandt's house, and that Angel were "blown away" by it. But it also gave them an idea. "The next morning, Ted Templeman called me up and said 'Did you play that tape for anybody?' and I said 'Yeah, I played it for all kinds of people!' Templeman wasn't happy. "'You a--hole, why did you do that?" Eddie recalled him saying. Templeman had gotten word that Angel was also planning to take a stab at the Kinks tune, with the hopes of releasing it first.
Van Halen rushed and put it out, two weeks before they released Van Halen, with "Atomic Punk" as its B-side. Angel's cover never saw the light of day.
'You Really Got Me' Goes Hollywood
Four years after it became a hit, Van Halen's take on "You Really Got Me" wound up being featured during a fraternity party scene in Night Shift, a Ron Howard-directed comedy starring Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler, who wind up running a prostitution ring out of the New York City morgue.
In 1996, Nissan used it in a minute-long commercial (embedded below) where an action figure comes to life, Toy Story-like, hops into a toy car and speeds through a house. It narrowly avoids a cat and comes to a screeching stop in front of a dollhouse. The man whistles for a girl to come down, and she quickly changes from her tennis outfit into a silver mini-dress, much to the dismay of the Ken-like doll she leaves behind.
Both Versions Used Inventive Guitar Techniques
Guitarist Willie Kizart had pioneered the use of distortion on records when he played through a busted amplifier on Jackie Brentson and his Delta Cats' 1951 hit "Rocket 88." But while Kizart's fuzztone was probably the result of an accident -- it's believed that it fell off the roof of the car en route to the studio -- Dave Davies' fuzztone was a deliberate act of sabotage. As he told The Guardian, he was angry and frustrated after his parents had broken up his relationship with his girlfriend, whom he had gotten pregnant.
"I was very depressed and fooling around with a razor blade," he said. "I could easily have slashed my wrists, but I had a little green amplifier, an Elpico, that was sounding crap. I thought, 'I'll teach it' – and slashed the speaker cone. It changed the sound of my guitar. Then, when I wired that amp up to another, a Vox AC30, it made it a lot, lot louder."
While Van Halen virtually showed the world a new way to play the electric guitar, there was one particular invention from Eddie that made its way into "You Really Got Me." As Van Halen News Desk explains, "The lurching, staccato sound at the end of the guitar solo was performed by Eddie bending the G string at the 7th fret and turning his pickup toggle switch back and forth on his Ibanez Destroyer 'Shark.' His neck pickup was disengaged and when he toggled back and forth it allowed the note to sound as if it was being turned off and on."
Van Halen, 'You Really Got Me" 2007
Van Halen (With Sammy Hagar) Perform "You Really Got Me"