NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and my dog just walked out on me again!
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Here’s some Beatles trivia for ye today: which of the Beatles only had a driver’s license for about four years? I’ll have the answer to that one near the end of the show.
Now, when most people think about The Kinks, the first songs that come to mind are usually “Lola” or “You Really Got Me.” But those songs, while pretty big, barely crack the Kinks’ Top Five singles, at least as far as their chart positions in the United States are concerned. “You Really Got Me”? Number SEVEN in the US. “Lola”? Number NINE. No, the fact is, all of the Kinks’ records that were released in both the UK and the United States charted better in the UK, with exactly one exception. And if you haven’t guessed what that record was, you’re not paying close enough attention.
By the early 1980s, songwriter Ray Davies wanted to move away from the big arena sound that the Kinks had been using for the previous couple of years, and back toward a warmer, more personal feel. At the same time, Davies was feeling a little bit nostalgic and thinking about his older sister Rene.
Now, Rene wasn’t just an older sister, she was a lot older than he was, on the order of 17 years or so. Rene had gotten married and moved to Canada, and by most accounts her husband was an abusive guy. In June of 1957 Ray was turning thirteen years old, and he’d been trying to talk his parents into getting him a Spanish guitar as a birthday gift. Rene, who was 31, came to visit the family home that week, and gave him the guitar as his birthday present. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, he said they played a few songs, with her on the piano and him trying to play this new guitar—his first—and after awhile she said she was going out now, and he watched her go out the gate and down the road.
The next morning they got a call from the police, telling them that Rene had been dancing at the Lyceum Ballroom and had suffered a heart attack, basically dying in the arms of a stranger. He said, (quote)
She was an artist herself and seeing her go that way and the impact it had on the family, I didn’t realize what a watershed it was. She gave me my first guitar, which was quite a great parting gift. On the piano she played, the day she died — I wrote most of my early hits in that same room. It’s where I was born, in that room. (unquote)
So Davies had this experience, plus the whole idea of the passage of time having its effect on the things we remember. The dance halls closed, one by one, a supermarket is replaced by a parking lot, and so forth. And the other thing he had was his sister Gwen, who was about seven years older than he was, so while he certainly never saw Rene’s dating life, he’d certainly see Gwen going out on dates, and then coming back and saying good night to them. And, in fact, for awhile he would say that the song was about Gwen. It wasn’t until later on that he said that Rene was the real subject of the song.
Davies said in an interview with MTV’s Mark Goodman that writing the song came easily, probably because the idea had been kind of cooking in his head for some time. He began composing it in earnest on a Casio keyboard he’d purchased in Tokyo while the band was returning from a tour over there in March of 1982. By October everything was completed, and the single released in mid-November, with the album still a few months in the future.
OK, let’s talk about some of the details here, because there’s a bit to unpack and some of it’s kind of fun. Now, one of the first things you might notice about this song is that he’s really leaning into his British accent, more heavily than he does in most of the Kinks’ other hits. Many of the British Invasion bands had this habit of singing with American accents, or close to it, largely because they’d learned rock and roll from listening to American records, so they were imitating the sound they’d heard out of Elvis Presley, or Chuck Berry, or whoever. Whether this was a conscious imitation or not is debatable, but that isn’t really important. The fact is, the Kinks also did it, but in this song he’s very definitely NOT. And that, too, is a conscious choice on Davies’ part. He’s made a couple of different claims with regard to the song’s point of view. One is that the song is told from the point of view of a spiv. Now, a “spiv” is British slang for a kind of petty criminal, the kind of guy who deals in black market goods. The word grew especially during and shortly after World War Two, when lots of things were rationed, and the spivs still managed to get their hands on stuff, probably illicitly. Davies’ other story is that the narrator is an East End barrow boy—that being someone who sells goods like fruit and vegetables from a cart of some kind. Either way, you’re looking at someone who’s considered to be relatively low on the social ladder. And Davies reasoned that if he could restore peoples’ faith in the Kinks being, quote-unquote, “real people,” then this song, sung this way, could do the trick. We’re going to come back to this shortly.
So what’s a “pally,” anyway? The word he’s singing there is a British-ized version of the word “Palais,” which is French for “Palace.” A lot of the big old buildings that were originally theaters and were converted into dance halls usually went by the name “The thus-and such Palais”. Perhaps one of the more famous dance halls in London was the Hammersmith Palais, which was built as a theater in 1910 but before ten years had gone by, was converted into a dance hall. It spent a few years in the 30s as an ice skating rink, but reverted to a dance hall in 1934 and remained that way until 2007 when it was unfortunately condemned for demolition, and ultimately taken down in 2012. Nowadays a student residence hall stands on the property. But the Hammersmith was just one of several places that operated in much the same manner, and nearly all of them had some form of live music going on. Personally, I like to think that Davies had the Hammersmith in mind, if only because of that Wurlitzer-like organ sound that carries you from one part of the song to the next. There’s no credit for an organ on the album, so it’s probably Ray Davies playing the synthesizer.
Also worth noting is Mick Avory’s drumming on this record. It’s hard to pick it out because he does it the same way each time, but he’s actually a little bit behind in many parts of the record. Ray Davies has noted specifically that the drum rolls into the chorus are literally a full beat late, but Davies has also said that that’s one of the things he really likes about the recording.
And then one of the things I appreciate about the song is the nostalgia angle, specifically the narrator telling you about the new thing that replaced the old thing, and in some cases replacing the even older thing. And just as the parking lot replaced the supermarket, and the bowling alley replaced the dance hall, so was his childhood music replaced. And suddenly we’re in this power chord break before returning back to the dance hall nostalgia sound. And here’s where I’m going to draw a neat little parallel that maybe not even Ray Davies thought of. When he was in school, he was in the choir, and part of what they learned was Gregorian Chant. And if you don’t know, Gregorian Chant is the religious music that sounds like this:
Now listen to the first couple of lines of “You Really Got Me”:
[YOU REALLY GOT ME]
Do you hear the same pattern there? If you sing it a cappella it’s even clearer.
Davies said in the NPR interview that “You Really Got Me” had some of its roots in Gregorian Chant; essentially he took its patterns and turned it into rock and roll, effectively putting an end to the music of his youth. And now, here in “Come Dancing” he does the same thing, replacing the Wurlitzer organ sound with some cranked up guitar.
The Kinks were still in the middle of their relationship with Arista Records at that point, and there was definitely some pushback on the record in a couple of different areas. It was suggested by the label that he sing the song in an American accent, to which he refused. And while the UK branch of Arista was supportive of their releasing “Come Dancing” as the first single from what ultimately became the State of Confusion album, Arista president Clive Davis pushed back because it was too English, and because he thought the song was just kind of a ditty, and didn’t have enough substance to be released as a single. So it was released in the UK in November of 1982, but it didn’t see a release in the United States until April of 1983, when it did well in the UK AND the video took off for MTV. A few weeks later it entered the Billboard Hot 100 and finally peaked at Number Six in July. And because it was so hot in the US at that point, the song was re-released in the UK that same month, making it to Number 12. So that makes “Come Dancing” the only single by the Kinks to chart better in the US than in the UK, and that Number Six position is the Kinks’ highest-charting single, tying it with—are you ready for this?—“Tired of Waiting for You.” “Come Dancing” was pretty much their last big hit anywhere, though there were a couple more singles that got a lot of airplay without really tearing up the charts. “Do It Again” would be a pretty good example of that. My guess is, unless you’re a big fan, you don’t really remember the song, but if I played a few bars for you, you’d go, “ooohhhh, yeaaaahhhhh…” Stinks to be you, though, because I’m not going to play it. Go back and re-discover your Kinks, my friend.
And while you’re doing that, take some time to watch—or re-watch—the video that got so much airplay on MTV. If you’ve seen it before, I bet you don’t remember just how good it is. It was directed by Julien Temple, who made a lot of music videos in the 1980s, and it features Ray Davies, who’s definitely a spiv, not a barrow-boy. And the spiv is the guy doing most of the nostalgia, though it also shows the spiv as the guy dating the sister while a young boy looks on. The point of view switches between the spiv and the kid, depending on what’s being sung. When it’s dance hall nostalgia, it’s the spiv, and when it’s stuff about the sister, it’s the boy. Also there are a couple of really great shots near the end where the Kinks become the dance hall band, and the spiv is there in the balcony, while people in modern-day dress are all bopping around him, and he’s just standing very still in the middle of it all. You can see the whole “time has passed me by” vibe in his eyes. Also, the horn section at the end of the video is just a little bit different, so listen in for that when you get there.
And I guess it’s worth mentioning that Davies used the song as the centerpiece for a stage play called Come Dancing. While it had a couple of Kinks hits in it, it’s not what you’d consider a jukebox musical, and it only had a limited run in London, in the fall of 2008.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you which Beatle only held a driver’s license for about four years?
[BEEP BEEP BED]
That would be John Lennon, who was the last of the Beatles to get his license in February of 1965, the same day that the Fab Four started recording sessions for their Help! Album. But John was a notoriously bad driver, and on July 1, 1969, while he was on holiday in Scotland he totaled his car, injuring himself, Yoko Ono, her daughter Kyoko and his son Julian. Everyone but Julian wound up with some stitches for it, and while Yoko was pregnant at the time, it was not thought to be the reason she miscarried some months later. John had the wrecked car moved to their home at Tittenhurst Park, and after that, he always let someone else drive him around. Coincidentally, that July 1 date was also the first day of recording, for the Abbey Road album. John wasn’t scheduled to be there that day, but the accident did delay his return to the studio by a few days.
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Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.