The lead guitarist, songwriter and singer of the influential English 60s rock band tells of his classic track’s haunting origins
When people think of The Kinks, it’s often the songwriting talents of Ray Davies that spring to mind. The contribution of his sibling Dave, a co-founder of the group, frequently gets overlooked. Whether for his pioneering guitar playing, the help he gave Ray when the songs were being forged, or his own compositions, the younger Davies brother played a pivotal part in shaping their sound. For many, his 1984 track Living On A Thin Line remains the strongest song of their later period.
Of all his compositions, which include Strangers and Rats, it’s Death Of A Clown which remains the pinnacle of his output. Originally released as a solo song by Dave, it also features on Something Else By The Kinks and doesn’t sound out of place alongside gems such as David Watts and Waterloo Sunset.
Here, Dave tells us about the track’s haunting origins…
“I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and I think that for certain people, like me, melancholia is a natural state of being and it shouldn’t be pilled out of you or psycho-analysed out – it’s supposed to be there. I think it helps a lot of artists create things and reach out in what they create, and I think that’s what I was going through when I wrote the song, coming face-to-face with my own melancholia.
“So I went back to my mum’s and that old piano and came up with that riff. Ray helped me write the bridge – the chord structure of the bridge came from embryo ideas of Ray’s. It was a collaboration, but I wrote the main song. It would have been one of those, ‘What about this?’ moments when you’re all sat about together saying, ‘No don’t write that,’ ‘Oh, that’s good,’ ‘That’s shit,’ ‘Maybe’ or ‘That’s great!’.
“I never liked the circus as a kid and was always scared of clowns, so I was facing that fear. I also felt like I was a performing seal or a clown in the circus. It always scared me, that false smile, always hiding behind something. There was a wonderful movie called The Greatest Show On Earth with James Stewart. He was a clown but he was covering up a sad story, and that was also in the back of my mind.
“This new world that I was in was like a circus. It was unreal, like a Fellini film, with big faces and everything’s over the top and you can’t seem to touch anything. Of course, there were drugs and drink involved. I tried to get that melancholia into those funny notes on the piano and it just grew out of that.
“It all came more or less at once, thinking about that tragic clown and about the clothes I wore. I think fortunately for The Kinks we grew up in that time of Ben Hur and great movies that were all so different – culturally it was always changing. We were always thinking of ideas in a filmic way.
“Robert Wace, our manager, thought it was a hit because it was so simple. That’s the thing about simplicity, you can’t just say ‘I’m going to make this sound so simple’ – there’s no essence in there. The whole group wanted to do it. I think it was also Robert that said I should put it out as a solo record, and I then got that fabulous coat. I liked being at the front for a bit but I quickly grew to dislike it as I didn’t really enjoy it.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously. How can anybody in the music business take themselves seriously? We all get found out and see all the flaws that we all have. Nothing’s perfect, we all f*** up and actually, f***ing up is really important. Some Kinks songs wouldn’t have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for failing first. Failure is important.
“It’s endured because it’s about melancholia and we all have a sad side to us. We pretend everything is great but sadness can be an oasis of energy and ideas. I like the song. Those plucked piano strings are really haunting.”