Monday, 24 June 2013
Top Ten Dave Davies Songs (News, Views and Music Issue 199)
If you were following The Kinks albums in order and suddenly came along this week’s album review ‘Something Else’, with it’s three Dave Davies songs, chances are you’d have thought ‘I wasn’t expecting that!’ Dave had released two songs with the band before – one on album no 3 ‘Kinks Kontroversy’ and another marooned on the ‘Kwyet Kinks’ LP – but as the Kinks’ junior member (aged just 20 at the time) and the brother of one of the most famous pop writers of the decade, his sudden form shocked many people. Moreover, his solo single ‘Death Of A Clown’ outsold many of the recent Kinks releases (including period gems like ‘Dead End Street’). It was the equivalent of George Harrison’s story in the Beatles – forced to rattle off songs inside an hour in between weeks crafted on Lennon/McCartney songs, John was inevitably on a ‘tea break’ whenever it was his turn in the studio and doesn’t even appear on the majority of his partner’s songs. Unfortunately, Dave fell from the spotlight quite spectacularly too, never quite getting it together enough or getting enough record company support for a proposed solo album that was delayed to 1968, then 1969, then 1970, then quietly forgotten. I reckon, though, that Dave was writing songs up to the quality of his brother’s work of the period (if not quite the quantity) and urge fans to look out for the best of his handful of flop singles, his 1970s-90s Kinks album Klassiks and his unfairly overlooked trio of solo albums 1980-83 (which are sadly near impossible to find on CD but are all worth hearing, especially the excellent third). With timing that only The Kinks could manage, Dave had finally made the solo album of his life in the mid-2000s with ‘Bug’ when he suffered a stroke and found himself unable to promote it. Truth be told this could easily be a top 30...Sadly my Dave Davies collection is split between my original vinyl, cassettes, mini-discs (remember those?!) and the excellent Dave anthology ‘Unfinished Business’, so due to sheer logistics I’ve never quite got round to giving Dave his Deserved Due (what is it with Kinks and alliterative Konsonants?!) Until now. Here is the Alan’s Album Archives guide to the very best Dave Davies work not already included on the ‘Something Else’ LP and where to find it, both with and without the Kinks, in chronological order. Rock you, rock me, rock on!
1) “Susannah’s Still Alive” (A Side, 1967)
In 1975 The Kinks embarked on a concept opera about a naughty schoolboy who’d got a naughty schoolgirl pregnant and – as far as the educational establishment was concerned anyway – ruined both their lives. Behind the guffaws and choruses about getting the cane was a horrendous truth: as a 15 year old boy Dave had indeed got his childhood sweetheart Sue pregnant. Both families were convinced that the pair had ruined their lives and decided to tear the two apart from each other in the most sudden, horrendous manner imaginable, by telling the one that the other didn’t love them any more (as detailed by Dave in his excellent autobiography ‘Kink’). Though a move meant in kindness, the way the two families colluded together broke Dave’s heart (and Sue’s, according to Dave’s book after the pair finally met up in their 40s) and despite being one of the most sexually active rock and roll batchelors of the 1960s Dave’s first batch of songs quite often study this theme. ‘Susannah’s Still Alive’ – the semi-successful follow-up to ‘Death Of A Clown’ – is one of the most blatant and best, possibly inspired by the 20-year-old’s chance sight of Sue talking to his mother (Mrs Davies had been in secret talks to enable her to see her grandchild who was now five). A remarkable outpouring of grief and sorrow, this majestic song should sound happy (‘Susannah’s Still Alive!’) but instead can’t is heartbroken, Dave pouring out his own isolation and despair by imagining that his girlfriend must have been experiencing the same things too. The story, though, is the perfect depiction of ‘Dave The Rave’ circa the summer of love, ‘leaving the covers down’ for some anonymous person to get into bed and keep him company, without caring who they might be and – for the second straight song in a row – a dependency on ‘whisky and gin’ (for the time it was quite daring to hear a song about a female teenage drinker!) Tied up with a distinctive pounding piano chordal riff and a Dylan-esque harmonica, this song confused many fans when it came out mere weeks after ‘Death Of A Clown’, but then they didn’t have the ‘clues’ to unlock this song that we have now. Bravely autobiographical (even if no one outside Dave’s family knew the truth), foot-tappingly catchy and quite unlike any other song around at the time, ‘Susannah’s Still Alive’ deserved to be a much bigger hit than it actually was.
2) “Creeping Jean” (B Side ‘Hold My Hand’ 1969)
Personally I’m not that keen on the next run of Dave Davies singles (none of which charted): ‘Hold My Hand’ ‘Lincoln County’ ‘There Is No Life Without Love’... compared to ‘Clown’ and ‘Susannah’ they sound like every other generic pop song a semi-talented teenager in need of a hit would write. Why on earth, though, wasn’t ‘Creeping Jean’ promoted from it’s role as a B-side when it effectively took off where ‘Till The End Of The Day’ had left off in 1965, a brash, arrogant scream of heavy metal with a gulping bass line and some daft but heartfelt lyrics. Read this song rather than hear it and it sounds like a daft novelty (like many a 60s B side), an update on the Leiber/Stoller song ‘Poison Ivy’ with its tale of a girl who’ll give you...erm... something unpleasant once you ‘get close’ to them (I’m amazed the censors were naive to miss most of these songs in the 1960s!) with lines like ‘your dirty friends and underwear keep hanging round my room’. But just listen to the terror in Dave’s voice, the howl that wraps around his guitar-work (inventing grunge 20 years early) and some pretty nifty bass-and-drums work. Listen, too, to the first appearance of a recurring ‘Dave’ theme ‘you don’t know...’ (as in ‘you don’t know what I mean’) which the younger Davies brother will still be using by the end of this list...
3) “Groovy Movies” (Recorded 1968 but unreleased till 2004 and the ‘Village
Green Preservation Society’ Deluxe 3 CD set)
Even less well known, unfortunately, is this sweet little bit of whimsy that should have ended up on Dave’s first solo album but instead never even made it to a Kinks B-side (the fate of most of his unreleased songs of the period), only finally (legally) seeing the light of day a mere decade ago. It’s a superb song about Dave escaping the city and rat race to, err, become a film director and make ‘the world understand’ what his life is like. With his pop career fading and long years of touring, rows and sibling rivalry wearing him down, Dave bravely tells us that ‘sometimes I think I won’t make it, playing in a rock and roll band’). By the end of the song, though, Dave doesn’t want to be a ‘big producer’ (because that’s too much hard work) or a film star (because that’s too close to what being a rock star is like), he simply wants to ‘smoke a big Havana cigar’ and direct his own films. A boon for Kinks fans who want to be amateur psychiatrists (‘Ziss is clearly Dave’s response to not being in control of his own life!’), it’s a funny, clever song that deserved a wider audience and ended up being by far the highlight of the much ballyhooed ‘previously unissued’ third disc on the ‘Village Green’ set, despite having nothing whatsoever to do with the album. An unusual brass sound is used by The Kinks for pretty much the first time too (the sound will dominate the forthcoming 1969 LP ‘Arthur’, so perhaps Ray was listening to his brother more than he let on?)
4) “Strangers” (‘Lola vs Powerman and the Money-Go-Round’, 1970)
In terms of world weariness, however, few tracks have ever beaten this song, one of two Dave wrote for his brother’s hilarious lampoon of the music industry. Less acerbic than Ray, but twice as tired and old-sounding, this song’s struggles to hold it’s head up through a torturous slow tempo and a slurred double-tracked vocal that makes Dave sound as if weights have been tied to his feet. The song is all about the distances between individuals and is clearly Dave’s reaction to feeling cut off from the rest of the band and his lifestyle (‘Death Of A Clown’ made real, in other words, as Dave spent almost all his time in hotel rooms drinking his way through a depression according to his book).The track does shine gloriously, though, thanks to a melody that runs warm emotion and hope across an ice-cold backing track and sudden bursts of insight on how ‘this love of life makes me weak at the knees’. By the end of it, though, Dave’s sad little narrator can’t win, cut off in his cocoon where ‘if I live too long, I’m afraid I’ll die’. Mick Avory wraps the song up with one of his rare chances to shine, Dave’s main antagonist barring his brother serving up a note-perfect wheezy drum pattern that perfectly encapsulates this song’s desperate longing, sadness and frustration.
5) “Is It Any Wonder?” (‘Chosen People’ 1983)
During the rest of the 1970s Ray found that his best means of communicating his own horror stories of the decade was through other characters and concept albums. The saving of Ray (whatever fans thought of the uneven albums), it didn’t leave much space for Dave who sunk more and more into the background and spent six years without a writing credit to his name. The new wave brigade of the late 70s, who adored the early Kinks and covered many of his songs, championed Dave and his trademark rasping guitar sound as one of their own, though, and slowly Dave worked himself back into his second wind. Whilst not big sellers by any means his first two solo albums ‘AFL-13606’ (a semi-concept album about the place of art within commercialism and marketing, memorably named after its own barcode!) and ‘Glamour’ (with a hilariously wrong bryl-creamed Dave on the front cover) did respectably well, Dave giving up on the subtlety that had been the Kinks’ trademark for the past 15 years and unleashing the wild, noisy guitar-God within him. Better yet, though, is Dave’s lesser known third LP ‘Chosen People’, which sold a pittance (Dave reckons in his book that Warner Brothers released it as a ‘tax loss’ and put as little effort into it as possible) and yet best reveals the ‘true’ Dave by combining moments of beauty and poignancy in between the heavy metal riffs. ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ is a torturous song throughout, unsure which key to settle on and highlighted by a swirly keyboard sound and a chorus of mocking voices asking the narrator ‘Is it any wonder that you’ll surely go under?’ Dave, in turbulence over a relationship he was having during his first marriage, knows the couple are destined to be together, but he can’t shake off the prying eyes and mocking voices of those looking on. Caught up in their web of intrigue and lies he ends the song pouring his heart out with the chorus ‘but I love you honey – and I can’t let go!’, the last strangulated word becoming choked off by the turbulent backing track. An emotional rollercoaster the equal of anything Ray ever did.
6) “True Story” (‘Chosen People’ 1983)
Weirder, but just as heartfelt (or so Dave’s book says) is this ‘true story’ about Dave being visited by aliens during a particularly frustrating and isolating Kinks tour. Told that ‘your leaders will not listen’, the aliens (portrayed here by synthesised voices) pour out their worries and frustrations on behalf of the human race and how they must ‘become one family’ in peace and harmony to Dave, telling him that – however few – people will ‘listen to you’. Far from the ‘superman’ they want him to be, though, Dave doesn’t have a clue why’ve they’ve come to him for help at such a bad time in his life, pleading with them ‘But what can I do? I’m just a poor boy...’ before the two finally join together on the plea ‘make them understand!’ Whilst many fans have taken Dave’s claims of interaction with aliens with a pinch of salt, nothing Dave says in his book contradicts anything serious UFO scholars have come to believe (especially the aliens monitoring human activity and keeping files on their whereabouts and actions– I bet The Kinks gave them a few sleepless nights if they were trying to promote peace, however!) and, indeed, I have read many similar reports from books printed after Dave’s autobiog. However literal the encounter, Dave’s song about ‘being shown another way’ to experience life clearly had a big effect on him and full kudos to him for admitting the tale, rather than pretending this was a ‘story’ or a ‘sci-fi concept album’. The track ends by eerily sliding away, mid-phrase, as if the song’s work is undone...
7) “Living On A Thin Line” (‘Word Of Mouth’ 1985)
The Kinks were often saboteurs of their own success and never more so than with this song, which received lots of radio airplay despite coming from what turned out to be one of the poorest selling Kinks albums. Whether due to a managerial oversight or a contract that stipulated only Ray’s songs could be released as singles (according to Dave) ‘Thin Line’ was passed over as a single despite being a sure-fire success. Shocked at Thatcher’s Britain and a 1980s that seemed like the polar opposite of 1960s love, peace and freedom, Dave poured his heart out into a song about how times never really change and ‘somehow all the wars that were won or lost don’t seem to matter very much any more’. The deepest, sombrest lyric Dave ever wrote about stumbling, blind leaders who don’t realise the damage they cause, ‘blaming future on the past, always lost in bloody dance’, the song is held together with a marvellously simply chorus (‘Oooh, what am I? What are we? Supposed to do?) that doesn’t give answers but does at least make you feel as if someone else has noticed the pointless chaos and confusion too. Ray’s sensitive harmony vocal is the best the brothers share on any Kinks album, I reckon, the two seemingly fully supportive of each other for once. The best Kinks song of the 1980s, no less, even with such gems as ‘Come Dancing’ ‘Don’t Forget To Dance’ ‘Do It Again’ ‘Loony Balloon’ and ‘Working At The Factory’ to choose from.
8) “Close To The Wire” (‘Phobia’ 1993)
Similar in feel, this song cris-crosses between Ray on the verses and Dave on the choruses on a song that seems to be the very heartbeat of last Kinks album ‘Phobia’s central theme of damage, destruction and devastation. Written during the end of Thatcher’s reign (and released during John Major’s) it’s a ‘taking stock’ song, sighing with relief at the end of a turbulent period but pleading with the world not to make matters worse when things are at a tipping point. Asking ‘what about the heart of man, his spiritual needs?’ Dave questions what happened during the ‘me’ decade of the 1980s once more with a ‘Money Talks’ style critique of what harm money can do when humans use it as their only judgement on something’s worth (‘The soul needs investment like a body needs to breath, but banks want investment, so who are we?’) Fittingly, for the last-track-on-the-last-Kinks-album-bar-three Dave also adds a sweet nostalgic middle eight, asking his brother as much as the world in general ‘what happened to the dreams we shared together?’ A fine way to wave goodbye, trumped only by ‘Did Ya’s hilarious put-down of the 1960s with multiple Kinks references to boot.
9) “Why?” (‘Bug’ 2002)
Nearly 40 years after his first composition Dave’s last-but-one album finds him still ‘sitting here wondering why?’ Like a demented toddler, Dave won’t let up, claiming that we’re wrong to ever stop asking why? In a tirade of abuse that sounds like it came straight from Kinks Klassik ‘Shangri-La’ Dave sings ‘So you’ve got a new shirt and you’ve got a new house and you’ve got a new job, but you’re wound up like a spring – because you can’t have everything’. A grungy guitar part is only notes away from ‘You Really Got Me’, but this isn’t an obsession this time but contemplative thought. A mock-Major General chanting out army commands and a hysterical, prying mother from hell (‘What you doing? Who you been with? What you doing? Where you been?’) then round out a typical tough novelty song in memorable style.
10) “Fortis Green” (‘Bug’ 2002)
Ray isn’t the only member of The Kinks who places such store in nostalgia. If he isn’t jealous of this song then big brother Ray deserves to be, as ‘Fortis Green’ commemorates Dave’s childhood at the Davies family home with every bit as much care as his brother’s better known songs. The backing is a long way from rock and roll, recounting the stately jazz bands of his 1940s youth (the music enjoyed by his many teenage sisters) and recounting snatches of Dave’s memories, good and bad. ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ on the wireless, granny Davies falling asleep while sunbathing (‘turning brown, turn her over!’), the front room (where the Davies brothers first heard music on a giant wireless and learnt to make their own – Ray gives a similarly moving recount of his own memories of the ‘front room’ in his 1990s ‘Storyteller’ shows to promote his ‘unofficial autobiography’ (!) ‘X-Ray’) and – of course – childhood sweetheart Sue (‘There was nothing she wouldn’t do!’ Dave lasciviously laughs). Like the best nostalgia songs (The Kinks’ ‘Do You Remember, Walter?’ and ‘Picture Book’ among them) there’s a sadness at the heart of this song with its mournful accordion, quiet middle eight and like ‘Days’ acceptance that these are ‘days that are now gone’.
Any one of these 10 songs (and probably at least another 10) could have been huge hits in some alternate universe where The Kinks currently outstrip The Beatles as the greatest band of the 1960s (especially in America, where their touring band never happened, even if that shift in events does mean sacrificing some of The Kinks’ most English work). Dave’s work is well worth seeking out by curious fans and has been overlooked for far too long!
Join us for some more overlooked music next issue!